Social distancing. Masks. Second wave. Spike. Testing. Contact tracing. We’re entering that odd phase where things are reopening, kind of, but we aren’t all in the same sort of ready yet. I know I’m not particularly ready for the world yet, but I don’t know if I ever was. This next few months will be hard. Still staying in, working full-time from my bedroom, yet occasionally having to be around groups of people for various things (such as youth soccer tryouts), everyone having different levels of social comfort, and different expectations, it’s a bit uncomfortable. But I will get back out with a sketchbook. I’ve already started, but working from home I’m less inclined than when I work at the office, because I can spend lunchtime on the couch watching the restarted fake-crowd-noise Premier League. I’m teaching my son French too, which is fun, as my French is very rusty. I suppose absolute beginners French I can still just about handle, although I told him to learn the French numbers rather than the Belgian ones, even though the Belgian numbering system makes more sense and is easier to remember. Come on, ‘nonante-neuf’ is easier to explain than ‘quatre-vingt-dix-neuf’. This will be a summer without travel to places where we can practice it though, so no real-life ordering pains-au-chocolat for breakfast at the boulangerie. I thought about using Tricolore to teach him, you remember Tricolore, the textbook we all used at school, where we learned our way around La Rochelle. In the end I went with another simple book, and I’m also creating a bunch of handwritten exercises on my iPad using cartoons of cats that I am drawing. A cat called “Ronron”. I think I’m enjoying it the most, but then I loved learning new languages as a kid, this whole idea that other words and ways of thinking existed beyond just the ones I experienced. German is still my favourite foreign language that I learned, and I’m getting back into learning Italian, which I did a GCSE evening course in while we still lived in London. Enough about language. I’m still watching Shakespeare at the Globe on YouTube, the Midsummer Night’s Dream production was funny, as was the Merry Wives of Windsor, one bloke in both was Pearce Quigley, he was very funny and his comedic northerner style of performance worked great in that intimate Globe setting.
But back to Davis. I suppose I should post here my pre-Covid sketches, of which there are plenty. I may be totally slowed down on the sketching front now, and officially months behind the same point last year, but I started fairly furiously. However I will just post one here now – the Old City Hall, Davis, also known currently as the City Hall Tavern. Well I say currently – it was announced recently that this bar, along with the longer standing restaurant Bistro 33 on the other side of the building, will not be reopening. I’m sure the coronavirus is partly to blame, but the building did get new owners recently and the lease for the restaurant and bar was expiring anyway. Still it is always a shame to see local businesses close. I have drawn the building many times, and I’ve drawn inside the bar a few times too, although it’s been years since I ate at the restaurant (I liked their creme brulee). I wonder what it will be next. Knowing Davis, a frozen yogurt shop. Or another bar and restaurant. I do know that it used to be a police station, and a fire station, and this part was used as a gallery space when I first came here. Oh and of course it was the old city hall.
On my recent six-months-ago-now trip to Portland (not the one with the Bill, unless you count the bar bill) I took advantage of the chance to sketch a few drinking spots, because after all, Portland is about the beer. Although actually one of the nicest spots I came to was a small wine bar across from my hotel, where I went in to do some pre-dinner wine tasting, because I thought why not. It was closing early so not enough time to sketch, but I did taste a few very nice local Oregon wines, and also spoke to a bloke who supports my own beloved Tottenham. Coincidence! He travels back and forth to Europe for wine stuff I guess, and he even went to the Champions League final in Madrid last summer when Spurs… well we didn’t win that one. Anyway as my hotel was nearby to Bailey’s Taproom, where I have been before, I wanted to come back and spend some time sketching in there and sampling some interesting beers. As it turns out, the guy behind the bar (not the one in the picture) recognized me from my previous trip there. In fact the last time had been a full six years before, on the very same date! I am nothing if not predictable. I told them I’d see them again in (gets out calculator) 2025.
So above, the McMenamin’s Crystal Ballroom, which I had been very interested to go to, but was hugely underwhelmed. It was not very interesting, it was practically empty (this was Friday evening just after dinnertime) and the beer I had wasn’t very good. I didn’t finish it, nor the sketch. I went and had a little cake at a nearby cake shop instead, very tasty.
Above is Hair of the Dog, a walk across the river, a brewery I’ve wanted to visit for a long time. I met up with sketching friend Kalina and had a beer and some food here, and a sketch and good conversation, always nice to catch up. Years ago a couple of friends had come here and brought me back a beer, and the beer here is certainly very good.
There was another place I really wanted to come back to sketch, and that is Jake’s Famous Crawfish. A smart and historic place downtown, I popped in and saw a spot right at the corner of the bar, a great place to sketch, ordered a single beer and drew this whole thing quickly. The last time I had visited Jake’s was in 2010 during the original Urban Sketching Symposium, on a late-night sketching session with Don Colley. I should like to eat here some day as well.
And the last bar sketch i managed to fit in was not one I went into, but I really liked this view. The Crystal Ballroom is at the other side of the building, but this end has the Annex Bar, another McMenamin’s place, which does have an interesting interior and a downstairs cellar bar which looks like a great place to hang out and meet characters with colourful conversation. Seems like it will be a long time until we get to do that again, huh.
Remember before social distancing? I would go out, staying away from everyone, sketching places without any people in them, and that was just normal. Now social distancing is the norm, along with a whole load of other words that we now know. Social Distancing will be the Time Word(s) of the Year 2020, I suspect (and we thought it would be Impeachment) (but that particular horse has a fair few furlongs to run yet), but there’s also “Zoombombing”, which I think is a genuinely new coinage, the practice where unwanted miscreants get into your Zoom meetings and perform perfidious profanities; “Shelter-In-Place”, which I’ve only ever had to do when there was an active shooter in town (America, folks! They love a gun); “Self-Isolation”, and its related verb, to self-isolate, which is like Luke Skywalker on that island that sounds like a sneeze, or Obi-Wan on Tatooine, or Yoda on Dagobah – basically you do it and pretend you are an old Jedi; I have also seen the word “immunocompromised” become more widely used, I had never thought of that word before, it could take up almost two Countdown Conundrums. And then in France you have the “Attestation de déplacement dérogatoire“, which is a form you must complete (France!, folks! They love a form) every time you want to go outside your house, and you can’t for example go more than a kilometer from your home if you are out exercising or walking the dog. The Attestation is just a part of life in France now, and will probably be their Mot de l’Année 2020. We all gotta do what we can to stop this thing. Stay at home when you can folks.
But here are a few more sketches from late 2019, a golden age for going out and (in my case) avoiding people, as I catch up on posting the sketches that backed up. It turns out that was probably a good thing, as it gives me something new to post that isn’t a sketch of my living room. Although I will say, that living room is going to be my St Victoire (also I do have a poster of St Victoire on the wall of my dining room). The sketch at the top is a sculpture outside the local library, near where I live. This was in Fall, when the leaves were red, outside the library where the leaves were read. JOKE OF THE YEAR 2020? Maybe not. Besides it references something from 2019 so it cannot count. Also it’s just not very good.
Incidentally do you want to hear my personal joke of the year funniest thing I said in 2019? Ok here goes. Don’t laugh ok, I thought it was funny. My wife and I were watching TV and on this one advert there was a young horse who needed rescuing from a road. She said, “I feel sorry for that baby horse”. So I said “I pity the foal.” Cue laughter, at which point I stood up and waved at the living room and left the room, you’ve been great folks. It’s right up there with “Missouri loves company” and “some day my prints will come” in waiting years for the perfect situation to come up to use those lines.
But in the sketch above, at the cross-section of 2nd Street and B Street, I was really hoping for some kind of road-rage incident involving an annoyed (not angry exactly, just irritated, unhappy, let’s say cross) motorist not stopping and causing some sort of, well not an accident for sure, I don’t want that, but something where they cause more annoyance, like they have to go around someone and everyone gets in a huff, and then I can say well the sign does say, cross traffic does not stop, so your mood at that moment determines whether or not you need to be the one that stops, just as the sign says. But that didn’t happen, and it’s just as well because it wasn’t very well thought through. It’s no “I pity the foal” is it.
Further down 2nd Street on a completely different day two days before, I sat with a cold beer outside Uncle Vito’s, on the corner of E Street. Our AYSO team the Blue Guys had won an exciting 10-5 game against an excellently named team called the Black Goats that day, and I had the afternoon to go cycling and sketching. I miss the Saturday-afternoon-after-the-game feeling. Now our Select soccer season has been cancelled, it’s left a big gap. I’m still watching videos and reading about tactics and training plans. By the way the big blue sign with a “P” on it is I presume pointing people to where the toilets are.
A month before, I drew this restaurant on the corner of 3rd Street and University Avenue, called Pho King. I know, I know. Don’t tell De Niro, he’ll make a ‘comedy’ movie out of it. They have a big sign on the restaurant (I don’t know if you can make it out) that says “$10 IPA Pitcher Go Vegan!!!” Again my mind was trying to put this into some sort of joke, where there is a baseball game and the pitcher’s name is Vegan and he plays for a team with the initials I.P.A. (Industrialists of Pennsylvania? Icelandic Philologist Academy?), but again, it’s no “Missouri loves company”. I’m still not stooping down to making Pho King jokes though, unless a shop called Tories opens next door. Incidentally I’ve never eaten here but I really like Pho so I will try it out. And if it’s not as good as expected, I might say “I pity the…”
No, I won’t. I tell you what though, I really like Thai food, and my favourite is Sophia’s on E Street. We get food from there all the time. I do like their bar as well, a really nice place to have a cocktail, to sketch and, yes, talk to actual other people. I’m not always a complete social-distancer, sometimes I will converse and speak and stuff. This was back in August (!) and I was still trying to use those brush marker pens more. This is a great place for those because the lighting in Sophia’s means there are much darker areas to fill in, making the values really stand out. I just really like it there. Oh man, I miss going out to the pub to sketch. This was a nice evening, I did speak to quite a few people and sketched several others too, but I’ll only post this one, which I sketched across the bar, a couple of people talking to each other in front of the big blue fishtank, I caught snippets of what they were saying. I just automatically assume they were making pun-like jokes about something, but I don’t really overhear conversations well, I’d have made a terrible Stasi spy.
So, here we are in April 2020, staying at home (except for those numpties protesting on the streets in Michigan), and it would have been Picnic Day here in Davis when the kids get out and party it up, but not this year. And now, back to sketching the living room and watching old World Cup games. I watched England v Argentina from 1986 a couple of days ago. I think tonight I’ll watch Italy v Nigeria from 1994. Stay home and stay safe everyone.
I went back to London at the end of November / start of December for a short week, and managed to get in a couple of sketches while I was at it. Above is the view looking down Haymarket. It was a bright day. I really enjoy looking up in London, seeing what’s at rooftop level. Years ago I used to tourguide down this street, on the upper deck of an open-top bus, pointing out this, talking about that. That was twenty years ago now, how things have changed. These rooftops have not changed much. Another thing that hasn’t changed much, Phantom of the Opera is still playing at Her Majesty’s Theatre, which is on the right there, at the corner of Charles II Street. I went to see it once, I knew someone who worked for the show who got me a ticket, and I had to enter right as it was beginning, so it was dark as I went to my seat, which was in the front row, where people have long legs that I can trip over, and I tripped over and onto my head, and nearly fell into the musicians. Fun times, always the cool cat I was. Bit of a silly story though, Phantom of the Opera, at least the bits where Jar-Jar was messing around. Lightsabre fighting was amazing though. Wow that was twenty years ago, I remember it so well.
A show I saw considerably recentlyer was Hamilton, which we saw right here in London two years ago, and then again in San Francisco last year. This is the Victoria Palace Theatre in Victoria, with Little Ben in the foreground. I drew this after leaving my Gatwick Express train and before jumping onto the Tube, that;s right, I arrive and immediately start sketching in the rain. Well I knew my wife would like this, she is a big fan of Hamilton the musical. I loved it too, especially the bit with the racecars, but I was sure Vettel would challenge him to a duel at the end, but he crashed out in the 46th lap after making another avoidable mistake. I have a really good memory for theatre stuff, it must be my degree in drama.
I didn’t draw much on this short London trip. It was really just to see the family, I just felt the need to come over there (maybe I had a feeling that 2020 would see us all stuck at home and unable to get across the Atlantic), catch up with some friends, and that’s it really. I bought a bunch of mince pies for christmas, a nice store assistant in Tesco Borehamwood showed me how to find all the boxes that had sell-by dates later than December 24, they were hidden deep. I was taking all my mince pies and yule logs and British festive foods with me to Hawaii for our Christmas vacation. But then it was time to go home, and sat on the plane I could tell was going to go home with a cold, just a feeling in my throat, back in the days when we just trusted our immense immune systems to do their job because that cold was probably just a cold, no worries. (It was, though I also picked up some bad nasal infection). I managed another sketch on the plane though, this time with the iPad, while Big Tex next to me planted his massive elbows on the armrest and beyond like it was manifest destiny. There was no social distancing in coach. It was another time, back in the 2010s.
One more thing, one more trip back in time. I flew to London via Las Vegas, as it was the easiest route, but it meant I had to stay the night. It has been many years since I was in Vegas, so this one night away was going to be a bit of a time-travel trip, and so I chose to stay at the Luxor, which is the hotel we stayed at before our wedding way back in the mid 2000s. We still lived in London them, so the Luxor felt big and glamourous and futuristic. Yeah not so much this time. I checked in fairly late, the desk woman barely saying a single thing to me as she snatched my credit card and scornfully slammed it back, “welcome to Vegas, now f*%koff to wherever”. Nice to feel like a valued customer, not even telling me how to find my room in this ridiculous headache of a shopping mall. The room was dark and a bit grubby, peeling wallpaper that certainly has not had an upgrade since we were here in 2004. I walked about the casino, a depressing experience, unsure of what the time really was, and went to find some food, which I found, and didn’t enjoy. This is one of the older casinos, of course, but I’m just so not used to Vegas any more. Worst of all though was the smoke, hanging over everything like a plague-ridden miasma. This is definitely something I don’t miss, choking in other people’s fumes, irritating my nose, throat, eyes, soaking into my clothes, in a huge concrete pyramid. That gave me a headache more than the flashing Wheel of Fortune machines. Still this is a trip back in time. I contemplated walking over to New York New York where I remember having a fun evening with friends at the Five Nine Irishmen bar or whatever it’s called, when my mate Simon had the worst Guinness he ever drank, but instead I stopped for a couple of drinks at the bar in the centre of the Luxor, and drew what I could see amid the colourful 70s style haze. I listened to people talk, it seemed to be a mix of locals hanging out there rather than tourists, and the cocktail I had was nice, and the barstaff pleasant. I went to bed and got a good night’s sleep before the flight to London in the morning, though my own airways couldn’t wait to get out of the building.
And now a look back at the distant past when we could go to things like parties and gigs. Not that I ever go to any such things anyway so it’s not something I’m really missing. However I wanted to show you this sketch I did back in September when I was in Sacramento with my wife, at her father’s party in midtown, the one he holds each year to celebrate when he moved to the area. (He is generally a bit more social than me!). It was held at a cafe bar called Shine, and he had a couple of bands come to play at the party, one of which was called Band of Coyotes, and those are the ones I sketched. They were very good. I really enjoyed drawing this though and it was probably my favourite drawing in that particular sketchbook, because I wasn’t sure how it would turn out, but I just drew anyway, starting in the middle and working my way outwards. I added paint in a very let’s-see-what-happens fashion too, not having great light to really see the colour, and I loved the multicoloured outcome, going from warm in the middle and cooling off outwards. I put on a lot of washes, so many that it actually went through the thin Seawhite of Brighton page, I didn’t mind. It’s always more pleasant to draw when you have good music to draw to, no doubt. A lot of the time I wouldn’t want to draw musicians, they might turn out to be pretty bad, or maybe they themselves are kinda nobs, and you don’t want to draw those, but this band were very good, and I think that comes across in my enjoyment of sketching. Oh man, I want the world to go back to normal, and I can go and draw everything again.
We leave these depressing times and return to the European travels of last summer, before social distancing was even imagined. In the last chapter we were all done with Amsterdam, that was all finished, now it was time to return to my favourite country: Belgium. Land of very slow queues but very quick access to beer and frites. This time I was returning with my family for some more touristy travels – no Charleroi, more Bruges. In fact we were staying in central Brussels, although due to the heatwave-related Thalys delay we got in later than expected, but still early enough for an evening stroll around the Grand Place, Mannakin Pis, the chocolate shops, the waffle stands and of course the friteries. Belgian frites are just the best. The next day though we took the train to Bruges (or Brugge as it’s properly called in Flemish). We walked up the steep hill to centraal station, stopping for a pain-au-chocolat (or “couques” as they call them here) on the way. The ticket machines in Belgian stations are not very good for foreign visitors with US credit cards, as they didn’t seem to take them, so we had to line up in the slow Belgian train station ticket office line. By the time we figured out a way to but tickets online instead we had reached the window. I love the train system in Belgium, it goes absolutely everywhere and runs a good service, but I forget that when I last used it I lived there and had one of those Belgo-passes I think they were called, where you just paid an amount and got ten train journeys. Ah well, tant-pis, we got where we needed to go in the end. I sketched on the train as the language switched from French to Flemish. The heatwave was over, now we had an overcast muggy sky. We arrived in Bruges ready to tourist.
I last went to Bruges in, whew, either 1999 or 2000 and was pleased to see that it is still a medieval city. Above is a sketch of the Grote Markt. Bruges was busy as usual, as always expected, and we even took a horse-drawn carriage around the city. I love all the old architecture and lanes and canals. The first time I was here all those years ago it was Christmas-time and there was a lovely Christmas market in this square. I decided not to colour in (since I was touristing with family) but I packed a lot in while my wife and son explored. Below is the incredibly large Belfort on the other side of the Grote Markt. It reminded me a bit of Orthanc, the large tower of Isengard where Saruman lived, with Gandalf on the roof ready to jump onto the back of a massive eagle.
Below is a stone lion which is at the entrance to the twelfth-century Heilig-Bloedbasiliek (Basilica of the Holy Blood) in De Burg (don’t start singing The Lady In Red). The shield is the Bruges city coat of arms. Inside this basilica they have an old holy relic brought back from Jerusalem during the Second crusade, a phial containing a cloth which has some of the blood of Jesus on it. Glad they never called this place Christ De Burg (don’t start singing The Lady In Red). The building was amazing, dating back to the time of Thierry of Alsace, Count of Flanders. That would be some time between 1134 and 1157.
We had lunch before all of our touristing in a nice little restaurant called De Zevende Hemel. There I ate my moules. I’m a big fan of moules. These ones were nice, but just nice. The trappis beer I had with it was delicious, La Trappe.
We got the train back to Brussels, and while the family got an early night, I went out for one last sketch of the day. I was looking for a historic cafe called A La Becasse. I had never been there before, and it was hidden away down an alley near the Grand Place. There I had a table to myself in the corner, a Hoegaarden Grand Cru, and just enough time before closing to get a lot drawn. I actually sketched this paint first for the most part, adding in the ink afterwards. There were a few American tourists in here talking, but it wasn’t particularly busy. They have a lot of beers on the menu, as a good Belgian ‘estaminet’ should (that is another word for tavern), and dates back to 1877. Here’s their website: https://alabecasse.be/en. Every time I saw the name, I kept thinking “…the lady loves Milk Tray”. But then that made me think of The Lady In Red again, get that song out of my head.
If that wasn’t enough, I couldn’t help getting one last portion of late night frites from Fritland, near the Bourse, whose frites I absolutely love. Filthy delicious. Even seeing this picture makes me so hungry, and just want to get back to Belgium.
The next day we touristed some more (I did a quick sketch on the metro, above), going up to the Atomium (I don’t know if you are allowed to show that online, it was always banned, but it’s a massive great big sodding metal building you can see for miles). I don’t really love the Atomium, because it reminds me of being bored, when I lived in Belgium and I would sometimes come here, not all that interesting, and go back, or maybe I would get the tram that goes all around the city to reach here, so I would have somewhere to read a book and watch the city go by, and I never liked reaching the destination. Still, we all had fun walking in the parks around it, and (food photo alert) we got waffles from a waffle truck, simple no-nonsense waffles with a little bit of sugar on them, none of that fancy chocolate and kiwi fruit stuff for the tourists, and we all agreed it was the best waffle we had ever tasted. Cheap and cheerful, no pretensions, the most Belgian thing ever.
That isn’t of course to say Belgian doesn’t do fancy. When it does fancy it can outdo all of you. I’m talking about chocolate. There are some crazy super fine chocolatiers in Brussels, but maybe the nicest ones we had were at Pierre Marcolini (at least as recommended to me by my Belgian friends, and they would know). This is the real fancy stuff. Not cheap either, but worth it. I got some for my wife as a souvenir. We got some others from places such as Mary and Neuhaus, but we ended up leaving them for family in London. I tell you what, all this talk of Belgium makes me very hungry.
If I was continuing the silly a-themed alliterative titles I would call this post “Apes and Ale in Amsterdam” but the phrase I am using, “je bent in de aep gelogeerd”, is more than appropriate. Ape-proriate if you will. This is ‘In’t Aepjen‘, a celebrated historic brown cafe in the heart of Amsterdam, near the red light district. It was on that Friday of the Symposium when I was totally wiped out by the heat, I had gone back to the hotel for a rest in the evening, to spend some time in air-conditioned comfort. But I got hungry, so I went out to find some food. It was still stupendously hot. I wanted to eat some Indonesian food, but I was passing an Indian restaurant near my hotel that just looked really nice, and I can never resist a good Indian. It was absolutely delicious. I sat in there for a while writing my diary, sweat dripping from my brow. There was a couple on the table next to me, who asked if the food was too hot for me, I said no it’s just the weather! They were visiting from India, and they said the food was like back home, it really was very good. Happy to have found a delicious meal, I went for a wander about Amsterdam. It was already after 10pm by this point, so I didn’t want to go down to Amstelhoeck with the other sketchers, so I went for a walk. I had wanted to find a proper old ‘brown cafe’, and maybe get one last sketch in. I ended up coming across ‘In’t Aepjen’, which was small and full to the brim with character. Brown cafes are old Dutch pubs, called brown due to their dark and cozy interiors, usually wooden and often stained with decades of smoke. No smoke any more, thankfully, but the brown was very much in this cafe. It was decorated with lots of monkey themed items, and barrels and ships and other knick-knacks. I decided to continue drawing with a brown Pitt brush pen, and knocked out the panorama above, which took me just one beer to draw. The beer in question was the ‘Aepjen Bier’, red and tasty. Click on the image to see it in more detail. I chatted with the barman, who told me the story of the bar, its name, and that Dutch phrase.
The brown cafe was opened in 1519 on Zeedijk, so it was celebrating its 500th year, and the name means “in the monkeys”. It was a place that would give lodging to sailors, many of whom would have been returning from distant exotic lands, like Indonesia, this being the Dutch Golden Age of Exploration, bringing back many things, including monkeys. To pay for their lodgings they would sometimes give the monkeys to the owner of the cafe, who would then sell them to a local whose animal gardens would be what became the Amsterdam zoo, but in the meantime there would be monkeys all over the shop, and it wasn’t a great place to sleep when you’ve got monkeys jumping about all over you, with their fleas and lice and banana skins and PG Tips and so on. In fact people would get sick from staying there, bringing rise to a common phrase in Dutch, “je bent in de aep gelogeerd”, which meneertje barman told me translates as “you are fucked up by the monkey”. I suspect ‘gelogeerd’ is probably closer to ‘lodged’ but the barkeep’s colourful local translation is better. Its written on all their stuff, and I’m assured this phrase is well known in Dutch, and that it does actually originate from this cafe. To be “fucked up by the monkey” is to be having bad luck or be in trouble. I went home having learned a new Dutch phrase, repeating it to myself as I walked through the narrow streets back to my hotel in the Scheepvaarthuis.
I really wanted to come back to In’t Aepjen and sketch another time, so a few days later when I was less heat-exhausted I returned for a couple of beers and to draw in more regular pen. I spoke again with the barman, and he told his story (reluctantly this time) to some female American visitors who wanted to know about it. I also chatted to a guy from Glasgow who was visiting on business (I think he was in the toilet paper business, but I couldn’t think of any good jokes, apart from “how do you make a bog roll? Push it down a hill” but I didn’t say that because one, it’s rubbish, two they might not call it bog roll in Scotland, that might be a London thing, and three he might have actually explained to me how you do make bog roll, what with him being in the bog roll industry). So I just told him the story about “je bent in de aep gelogeerd.” It’s a conversation piece alright. I might start making up similar stories in London pubs. “Oh yes, the Olde Cheddar Cheese, that gave rise to the popular phrase “to get the cheese stuck on your elbow”, which basically means to be confused about what time it is,” or if I’m in the Good Mixer, “ah well this is where the very common phrase “you have been good-mixed up” which is when you can’t find your wallet but a stranger buys you a beer and a round for the whole bar”, or actually I’m going to not think of any more now. I drew as much as I could, adding a little bit of colour, but my eyesight wasn’t great and I wanted to sleep so I added the rest of the colour later on. These are a couple of my favourite of my many bar-sketches, and if you’re in Amsterdam you should look for this place, there is lots to see and sketch, and the atmosphere is good. Just don’t get fucked up by the monkey.
After my late night frites from Robert La Frite, Charleroi’s finest friterie, I had a much needed lie-in. I spent much of the morning in the large new comic shop near the hotel; Belgian (and French) BD stores are really incredible. They love their hardback comic books, and I get very inspired by the artwork. It made want to get drawing. I have daydreamed about returning to Charleroi and drawing as much as possible. I spent a year there with hardly any drawings, so I always felt I needed to return to catch up. I did want to walk through the fancy new Rive Gauche mall though. Now I know where all the shopping has gone since the stores all closed down in Rue de la Montagne. Despite the novelty, it didn’t feel like I was in Charleroi at all, so I left and headed out with the sketchbook. I went straight up to Place Charles II, and drew the Église St. Christophe, the large rusting-green domed church dominating the round plaza. But wow, it was already really hot.
Any football fans among you may remember the Euro 2000 tournament. Incredibly that was twenty years ago now. In that tournament, which was held in Belgium and Holland, there was a famous game in which England played Germany right here in Charleroi. This plaza saw the English hooligans running wild before the game, throwing chairs and giving all that old little-Englander nonsense about St George and yelling obscenities at anyone foreign, and in one case I witnessed a drunk Englishman hilariously kicked one of those concrete balls (which had been dressed up to look like footballs at the time) hurting his foot in the process and spilling his beer, but Charleroi is a place that did not care for that sort of thing at all, and they just pulled out the water cannons and sprayed them all over the place. I’ll never forget, some of the local bars decided not to open up that day, but they still sold beer from lemonade stands outside, because Belgians don’t give up on beer. Once all of the losers had been washed away, the evening following England’s victory was one of the best nights in town, and I met some great English lads staying up all night to catch the morning train and ferry, and showed them to all the places the locals love. I though back to all of that while drawing the church, glad that it was two decades in the past.
Charleroi is not a place awash with tourists (even though the town was literally awash with cannon-sprayed football hooligans once), but there is a tourist office right here on the Place. I went in to look around, picking up some badges and a few postcards. I was suffering from the heat and so came in to cool off. I got talking to the guy working in there, talking about all the changes in Charleroi, he told me about all the new cool stuff in town, new breweries, while we also reflected sadly on the state of some of the old shopping streets. I said that I was intending on sketching the city and that I had always wanted to promote its image, being that big overlooked city in Belgium, and we talked about how the city always was and still is a place of art; Magritte of course lived round here, and then there are the comics, the famous Marcinelle School. I also said that I have been following a photographer online whose work actually inspired me to come back here, ‘Charleroi Zoom‘, they really show the best of the city. The guy was a bit shocked – it turns out that Charleroi Zoom is him! He shook my hand and couldn’t believe I had been inspired by his photos to come from California back to Charleroi, but it’s true. I was just as gobsmacked. Always nice to meet someone who loves the place. I went back out into the Place Charles II and drew, in what shade I could still stand in, the Hotel de Ville (above).
The heat was unbearable, and moving about the city was slow and ponderous. I wandered down to Parc Reine Astrid, looking a little shabbier than twenty years ago but this was where I used to come to relax and read books. On the edge of the park is a statue of the cowboy Lucky Luke, another BD hero who originated here. I thought I’d draw in pencil for a bit, it was a bit quicker in this heat. The more animated style of sketching it gave is probably appropriate for the Marcinelle School (also called the Charleroi School), which was the house style of Spirou back in the 1940s or so. This style, also called ‘comic-dynamic’ was said to be in opposition to the very precise ‘ligne claire’ style of other Belgian books books like Tintin.
I was saddened to see that Lucky Luke has really weathered a lot over the years. He used to be so shiny, but hasn’t seen a lick of paint in years. Here he is below, in 2019 (left) and 2000 (right).
Further up the road near the stadium is Boule et Bill. I didn’t sketch Spirou, also nearby, but I had to draw these two. Boule is wearing the black and white stripes of Sporting Charleroi, the local team. Of course, I ahd to visit the stadium. The last time I went there was for a game at the end of the 1999-2000 season when Charleroi drew with Anderlecht to just about stay in D1. They were never a very good team, although this season 2019-20 they have been playing brilliantly. I bought the new season’s shirt, I love my football shirts, and then walked back up to Square Hiernaux.
Square Jules Hiernaux is where I lived twenty years ago; I could see into the Charleroi stadium from my window. It’s not a square but a large roundabout – the ‘vicious circle’ I used to call it, when I would watch the Belgian drivers aggressively battle their way around it – but in the middle is yet another local BD hero, the long-tailed leopard-like creature Marsupilami. My little neighbour friend was looking good.
And here is La Vigie, the student living quarters for the Université de Travail (UT), the tower that was my home from 1999-2000. I worked as a teacher at the UT, in the attached building, during my year abroad from my French degree. It was an interesting experience living there; I remember that for months the showers were freezing cold, and we had no hot water even in the sinks. There was nowhere for me to refrigerate food or drinks so I didn’t eat a lot of dairy that year (outside of chocolate or the mayo on my frites), but I would cook pasta and noodles in the small kitchen in the basement. My neighbours were mostly from central Africa, friendly guys who would often cook spicy-smelling dinners on a little electric stove-top in the corridor, while playing Congolais music. The neighbour right next door to me however was more into Celine Dion, and would play “My Heart Will Go On” at full blast on repeat EVERY SINGLE MORNING. For MONTHS. I remember how glad I was to bring my guitar over to Charleroi to counter this musical monstrosity. I wrote a lot of songs there that year, that’s what I used to do instead of drawing. That’s what you do when you’re 23 and don’t know many people. It was an entire lifetime ago, but it looks like the building has not changed a bit, except for the new white neon sign on the roof.
I took the photo below the evening before, looking up to my old bedroom on the thirteenth floor. I really wanted to go inside, and go up to the rooftop to look out across the Caroloregion, with the giant ‘terrils’ (old slap-heaps now turned into grassy hills) dotting the landscape. I perhaps should call ahead some day and arrange this. This time though I thought I would just pop in and ask the custodian if it was ok. The door opened as someone was leaving, so I went in to ask.
But nobody was there, and it didn’t look like the custodians were working that day. It was the summertime, so they probably have a limited schedule there, while most of the students are gone. Ok, well maybe next time. I went to leave, but the door would not open. I remembered that to get in years ago you needed a little electronic badge, but you also needed it to leave the building, inexplicably. They have not changed their system in two decades, so for now I was stuck in there. The doors would not budge; I knew that from experience. Twenty years before I was stuck outside in the snow one night after returning from a work visit to Brussels, when the doors were locked while the custodians went wherever they would go. I tried everything to prise the doors open with my frozen hands, to no avail, and got into an argument with the custodians when they finally returned an hour and a half later. I wasn’t going through that again, so I just waited. Nobody was coming, it was the middle of summer. What was I going to do, stay there in the lobby all night? I couldn’t get further into the building without an electronic key so I was stuck in this small lobby. There wasn’t even anything to draw. After half an hour or so I thought I would try the door to the canteen, which I was certain would be locked like all the other doors, as it led into the main university building. To my surprise it was unlocked! I wandered into the canteen area, where years ago they would give me free dinners (of grated carrots or weak soup; I could not eat anything meaty as I was ‘le vegeterien!’). Amazingly the door from the canteen into the main university was also unlocked. I was wandering through an empty building I had not stepped foot into since my early twenties. You know when places from your past like this show up in the dream space when you sleep, morphing into those buildings you have to try and somehow get out of, well this was where I was in real life. It was surreal. I remembered my way to the main entrance, which of course was locked. I found another entrance, and that too was locked. I was still stuck, and really wanted to get on with the rest of my day. And then I remembered that years ago there was this one door in a stairwell that led outside which for some reason was often left unlocked, if I could just find it. Since nothing else here had changed over the years, maybe I had a chance? And I found it, and of course it was unlocked, and I was finally outside. Typical Charleroi, still messing me about years later. I had one more sketch to make, the Waterloo Metro entrance right outside the front door. I think I was just about done with La Vigie.
I headed back to the hotel (picking up a delicious “mitraillete de dinde” on the way from Robert La Frite) before coming back up this way to sketch La Cuve. However, La Cuve was closing early due to nobody being there, so I wandered the town a bit more, taking some pictures of the dramatic summertime sky.
There was one place I used to go that I wanted to check in on – the Irish Times Pub. I remember when this place opened in early 2000, a new pub in town that the locals made sure kept very busy. Again, it has not changed in the slightest. I had many late nights here back in 2000, so it was fun to spend time working on a bar interior after all that time sketching out in the heat. Naturally I had to give in a drink a Westmalle Triple, the beer I first tried in this very bar which I always knew was trouble, one that you definitely can’t have many of.
And that was my brief visit back to Charleroi. Definitely some mixed feelings about the old place, but it was nice to finally be back. The next morning I was to be up and away to catch the train to Amsterdam; little did I know that the intense heatwave was going to make that journey very difficult…
Checking into the Ibis hotel in Charleroi, the desk clerk looked at my California ID and widened his eyes. “You’ve come from California…to Charleroi?” he asked in French. He was genuinely surprised. Charleroi is not exactly a tourist destination. People come to Belgium to visit Bruges, or Antwerp, they don’t come to visit Charleroi. People from Belgium don’t even come to visit Charleroi. In fact most of the day before catching my train to Charleroi had been spent in Liege, where my companions would say to each other, “Hey do you know where he is going later? Charleroi!” “Vraiment? Ho ho ho!” they chuckled. My French-speaking Belgian friends told me they even had difficulty understanding anything in the Charleroi accent, which probably explains why my own French is hard to understand, because I learned it there (also I’m not very good at it. That said, people in Charleroi did complement me on my good French this time, so they understood me fine). Someone else told me, “Charleroi is the worst city in Belgium,” with a finality that said these truths were self-evident. I had spent a year there between 1999 and 2000 and I knew this was how Charleroi was often seen by some other Belgians, but I think I had forgotten, or assumed that was a thing of the past; maybe not. I was coming to spend a couple of nights here, to explore and draw, to see what has changed in two decades.
The shiny statue of Spirou outside the station was new. Oh, I should point out that Charleroi, as the ‘BD’ capital of Belgium (BD = ‘bande dessinee’, comic books), has many statues of its great characters all over town, like real-life local heroes. Charleroi is all about the comics. Worst city in Belgium? More like best city in Belgium. After checking in, there was still a bit of time before the sun went down to explore. The city has really changed – the whole are around the ville-basse has been completely renovated. Whole buildings pulled down, shiny new ones gone up. The small cinema on the Place Emile Buisset, ‘Cinema Paradiso’, where I remember watching the Blair Witch Project on a quiet Sunday night back in 1999, is gone, replaced with newer buildings, including a large BD comics shop. I walked past the old seedy part of town, still a little seedy but the ‘madames dans les vitrines’ are gone. Ladies in windows were quite common twenty years ago, but I didn’t see any this time. The big old casino was there but closed, and there used to be a shabby looking building on a corner that I recall was a very scary looking nightclub, I never went into – now gone. There’s still an air of seediness here, and while much has been scrubbed up, many places are just boarded up and empty. There are a few of the old cafes, with the same aging people just sat around, the places that never seemed to close. Just not as many as before.
And then there is the new mall, and the massively upgraded plaza at Boulevard Tirou. I did sketch the shiny new open space looking out towards the beautiful tower of the Librairie Moliere (though I sketched it on the next day), which is at the top of this post. When I lived here there was another building in front of this, which had a few shops in it, and was a kind of market place. The rest of the square was a car park. It really is much nicer now. I knew it would be different – last year I was looking at Charleroi on Google Maps, thinking ahead to my visit, but some of the pictures were showing the new look, while a few others had not yet been updated. So here are a couple of screenshots I took:
Well done Charleroi, well done. The massive shiny new mall, which I didn’t go into on that first evening (it closes promptly at 7pm), has really helped make this formerly tired part of town into somewhere far more attractive. But this isn’t the part of town I used to live, I lived way uphill in the ville-haute. I wanted to go there, I wanted to go home. The walk up there depressed me. Rue de la Montagne, which was full of shops twenty years ago, is now full of empty closed down shops. Obviously the mall has moved the shopping away from here, but it was saddening – I liked walking down this street years ago, going into Blokker, and the little music shop, and the sports shop where of course I met the one and only Kevin Keegan, who was England manager at the time. I’ll never forget, I just walked in to take a look at the football shirts, and there was King Kev, doing keepy-uppies while a camera crew looked on. “Wow you’re Kevin Keegan!” I said, and we had a little chat. This was in the run up to Euro 2000. He was nice, and signed my diary. He asked me about Charleroi, I might have given an honest assessment, but told him that the people are warm, coal miners who like their football team in black and white stripes. A month or so later in England my neighbours told me they had seen me on TV talking to Keegan, which was a surprise. I thought of that, as I walked up this sad street. My old bank was closed, the old laundromat too, the place where I would get my tuna paninis was gone, the night-shop where I would get my 1am fix of Fanta Citron was also gone. I went all the way up to La Vigie, the enormous tower I lived in, at Square Hiernaux. Little had changed up there, but the area felt more worn down than even when I was there. It might have been the time of evening, but the Place Charles II, which felt very much like the beating heart of town in 1999, was looking rough, with grass starting to poke through some of the tiles where the fountains used to spray. A drunk woman approached me, telling me that the grass was good Walloon grass that must be protected. I wasn’t going to pull any up. I wandered into the neon mess of Place du Manege, which was slightly less neon but still a bit of a mess. And I have no idea what this three-legged frite lady was supposed to be, but Dopey the Dwarf was well impressed. Something about this just says ‘Charleroi’ to me.
Chez Raoul, the old friterie and kebab shop I used to eat at so often that the Turkish staff there took a photo with me when I left, is now no longer a friterie but a shisha cafe. Some old places were still there, such as El Gringo, as uninviting as ever, but I was looking for my favourite bar in the whole world, La Cuve A Biere. Apart from the fact there was hardly anyone there, I am pleased to report that it hasn’t changed one bit in twenty years. Years ago I would go there when it was cold outside, as it was my local, and my glasses would steam up. I would take them off to wipe them clean, and by the time I got to the bar and put them back on, my beer was already waiting for me. I loved that place. I would go there most nights, to sit and write, or read, or chat with locals, or watch football. I wasn’t sketching bars back then, and I have always wanted to come back to draw here. Unfortunately, that will need to wait for another trip, because they closed early. I was the only one in there. However I did order my favourite Belgian beer, the epic Charles Quint, served in a special ceramic mug and introduced to me in that very bar by a huge sailor from Antwerp twenty years before, and they still serve it with a little bowl of cheese. The best.
While I didn’t get to draw the interior this time (perhaps I should come back on a cold Saturday evening in winter time), I did come back next day to draw the outside from the corner opposite:
I left, and walked through this less salubrious part of town in the same shoulders-up suspicious-of-every-shadow way I did way back when. It felt more dangerous now, with people lurking in doorways and outside seedy looking tavernes, but that might be the doubling of my age, and my Californian years making me feel less invincible than when I had arrived from Burnt Oak at the end of the 90s. I walked past the corner where the phone-box used to be, which was once my only way to call England, the spot where I learned the news my nephew Leo was born; he is now taller than me. I walked past a square which I remember as a car park but is now some sort of city-centre beach. I walked down a street where I remember tripping over a huge rat one night; it was dark, the streetlights weren’t working, but the rat didn’t care about me and just plodded slowly off. Beyond where the bare outlines of factories that circle Charleroi, and I remembered the smell of sulphur as they would pump fumes into the night sky, but I guess they have closed down now. There was one place left on this evening of rediscovery. I was hungry, and there is only one place to go when it is midnight when you are hungry (or at 3am, as was the case when I was 23), and that is Robert La Frite. Robert is a little hut a little away from most of the action (action?!) but it’s worth it, these are the best frites around. There is always a line, and even on a Monday night after 12am the place was very busy, and not with the usual late night drinker types, people were out with their kids, pickin’ up their frites. Even writing about this I get hungry for them. I did not eat healthily when I was in Belgium, living off frites, battered turkey kebabs, beer and chocolate, but as I said when I was 23 I was invincible. You don’t go to Belgium for healthy food, you go there for great food. And like most Belgians, I like my frites drowned in sauce. My personal favourite is Sauce Andalouse, a little spicy, utterly delicious.
And then back to the hotel. I was looking forward to my big day of sketching and exploration, little did I know the heatwave was about to hit big time. I had come from California to Charleroi to escape the heat, but ended up in one of the hottest weeks Europe had seen in many years…
Continuing in nonlinear fashion (until I pluck up the courage to write properly about my summer trip to the Low Countries), let’s stop in at De Vere’s for a pint or two. De Vere’s is my go-to pub for sketching – lots of places to sit, lots of perspective, nice atmosphere, friendly staff. I also really like Sophia’s but it’s smaller, and a bit less light to draw by (but it’s my favourite place for food in Davis). Little Prague used to be my sketchpub years ago when it was there (it closed six years ago), it had a long bar perfect for panoramas, lots of stuff all over the walls, and awesome tall Czech beers. De Vere’s however has Pub Chips, and that is a big win for me. Their Pub Chips have some thick gravy on them, and some melted cheese. Not quite as nice as proper northern Chips in Gravy, and possibly more similar to Canadian Poutine, either way they taste pretty nice. On this one Saturday night in September I found my favourite spot in the corner at the end of the bar and sketched away. I got into a nice conversation with a bloke from Ireland and his American partner. I lay the paint on very thick, and scribbled away with the pen very hard; I had fun with this sketch. This was one to attack the paper. I’ve drawn this place before, and I’ll draw it again, no need to be precious. I was celebrating; that evening I had sold another drawing at the Pence Gallery in the annual Art Auction, which is always a nice feeling. I really like drawing. Sometimes I get down on myself, start questioning if I’m good at anything, and then I remember I can draw fire hydrants pretty well, and while it’s not a useful skill, it’s a starting place. I can draw a bar too, in my own way, and it’s often fun as well.
Anyway, I drew De Vere’s again a couple of months later, when I wanted to try out sketching with the iPad. It was a quicker sketch (one beer, late afternoon, on the Nov 11 Veterans Day holiday), while I played with the new Apple Pencil. A good learning experience, also enjoyed alongside those lovely Pub Chips. Now one of the nice things about Procreate is that you can create nice videos showing every stroke you made, very helpful in showing how you put the sketch together. Here it is…
Previously, I had to show this by just taking photos of my sketchbook when I remember to. For that first sketch, I actually did, and even tweeted out the progress. Here are the photos, which helpfully show the beers too, which I’m sure you will agree is helpful to know. No sign of the Pub Chips though. Everything stops for those. Prost!