“thou Scheldt not pass”

Antwerp Steen sm

I weaved through the streets of Antwerp heading for the river Scheldt, to use that brilliant “thou Scheldt not pass” line I had thought of in my previous post. I might use that as a title for this blog post. I headed for Het Steen, the little castle on the banks of the wide river that is the oldest building in Antwerp. It dates from the early 1200s, and means “The Rock” (though “Steen” is a pretty common word for a stone castle in Dutch). There was a castle on this spot right back in the 9th century Carolingian period. It has a decent tourist information office in there now, where I bought some chocolates for my son (little chocolate hands from Antwerp). I had a good spot to sketch from across the busy street, up some stairs, but it was starting to spit so I sketched quickly. You know I love a street sign, so I made sure to include the blue crosswalk sign in the bottom right corner. Some people might think no, you leave those out, takes away from the historic castle, but I say thee nay, give me modern metal street signs and old medieval buildings any day. Back on my 1998 train tour of Europe I became a little bit obsessed with crosswalk signs, because they were a little different in every country. I liked the German ones in particular, wearing the little hat, as do the ones in the Czech Republic which look a bit like spies. I would always get obsessed with things like that.

Antwerp Lange Wapper sm

I tell you what, they can’t get enough of those Flemish giants here in Antwerp. This is a statue of a big lad called Lange Wapper. It’s right outside Het Steen, and shows Lange Wapper doing that Tory-party conference stance and looking down on two smaller people, crotch out, threatening them with his Lange Wapper (I’m so glad he is clothed, unlike Silvius Brabo). Lange Wapper is a Flemish folk tale, about a boy who started out as a bit of parsley and cabbage and then became a bit of a trickster. He apparently saved an old woman who had been thrown into the river Scheldt by a gang, and the old woman gave him the ability to shape-shift, for example turning into a massive giant who could leap between towns. He got into all sorts of antics; he would probably be cancelled now. He is kind of like a bogeyman figure of Antwerp. This statue was put there in the early 1960s.

Antwerp hydrant 2 sm

Not far from here I found another hydrant I needed to draw. This one had a peculiar sticker that said “Love the game, hate the business” and “Against modern football!” on it, which must really make the firemen think. Haha, a fire hydrant talking about sportswashing, the irony. Anyway I drew this down a fairly quiet street. Those few drops of rain I felt over at Het Steen were coming back, we were definitely going to get wet today. It’s good to keep adding new city fire hydrants to my big collection.

Antwerp Kathedraal sm

This is the Onze Lieve Vrouwe Kathedraal, in the heart of Antwerp. As well as fire hydrants, and crosswalk signs, I am obsessed with drawing cathedrals, though one subject generally takes a lot longer than the other. I drew this one looking upwards from a standing spot, all the benches in that particular square having been taken, and those clouds were pretty ominous. I did about 75% of it and finished the rest later when I was sitting down not craning my neck. The hours of the day were moving along quicker than those clouds, and I wanted to go and sit inside somewhere before getting the train back to Brussels, and have another hearty Belgian beer. I had a place in mind, but it would be a walk to get there. It took a while, but I beat the incoming rainstorm by bare minutes.

and on to Antwerp

Antwerp Station EXT sm

After my morning pain-au-chocolat I took a train from Brussels Centrale to Antwerp. It’s been 22 years since I set foot in Antwerp, and even then it was at night, and the one time before that it was a rainy dark grey autumn day. So I’ve never seen Antwerp in actual daylight. It wasn’t very sunny today though, but it was dry and good weather for sketching and exploring. It was a city that always interested me though, full of places to discover, and lots of shops as well. I don’t actually remember the train station being all that interesting, but my Belgium guide book put Antwerp’s Centraal Station as one of the big architectural highlights, and they weren’t wrong. After eating a quick waffle, I sat down on a bench and started drawing the scene below, but decided after about ten minutes that this would be just too much to attempt, I should do this later. In the main interior ticket hall there was a big basketball court set up with TV cameras, filming some famous Belgian basketball players bouncing balls about. Basketball is popular in Belgium; my local Charleroi team Spirou were quite good (and named after one of the local comic book characters). I went outside in the fresh North Sea air and drew the exterior (above). It’s pretty magnificent. Inside the mainline platforms are all on several levels, it feels a bit like a huge deep shopping mall underneath a Victorian exhibition hall. The building was finished in 1905, designed by architect Louis Delacenserie, and is sometimes nicknamed the “spoorwegkathedraal” (“railway cathedral”). I left the outside sketch unfinished as I wanted to move along and get some frites (it was nearly lunchtime already!), and as for the drawing below, I kept the outline I’d already started but ended up doing the rest later on from photos. So many details.

Antwerp Station INT sm

And so, into Antwerp. It was a fairly long old walk from the station to the main city centre where all the shops are. The first time I came here, on a gloomy day at the end of 1999, I was pretty excited by all the big shops, because it was better than what Charleroi had at the time. This time I was most excited to find a really cool art supplies shop, and spent longer in there than I meant to, buying quite a few little things. The woman behind the counter spoke to me only in Dutch, and I did manage a few words myself (I tried to learn Dutch twenty years ago but found it hard to speak because every Dutch speaker would only ever reply to me in English). I didn’t completely understand her, but I did my best. I really should get learning that language again, and it’s not hard to read. The Dutch of Belgium (which is usually called Flemish, or ‘Vlaams’) does sound a bit softer to my ears than the Nederlands of the Netherlands, and I really enjoyed listening to it while I was out and about. I discovered that even the garbage bins speak Dutch. As I put something into a bin, it made a funny sound, like I was feeding it. When I threw something else in, it made another sound, saying something in Dutch. The bins are very peculiar.

Antwerp hydrant 1 sm

On Meir though, it was too noisy to listen to anything. Meir is one of the big shopping streets of Belgium, like the Oxford Street of Antwerp. I did pop down the adjoining street called ‘Wapper’ (they really need to put a Burger King on that street) to have a look at the Rubenshuis museum, where Antwerp’s greatest painter son Rubens used to live. I didn’t go in though, just mooched about the gift shop. I mean I like Rubens I guess, but I also really like drawing fire hydrants and there was one I saw on Meir that I really had to sketch. Meir was just so noisy though. There was some construction going on in a building nearby, the echo of the pneumatic drill bouncing off the buildings. There was a fire alarm in a nearby Primark, and the shop staff all stood outside. People passed by on their phones, dogs barked, and it was one of those moments when I have a bit of audio-sensory overload and can’t fully concentrate. I got through the hydrant quickly (there was a sticker on the hydrant that said ironically “Take Sides – Silence”) and went looking for somewhere a bit calmer.

Antwerp Silvio Brabo sm

I headed over to the Grote Markt. That’s where you’ll find the statue of Antwerp’s most famous hero – no not Rubens, no not Romelu Lukaku, no not Toby Alderweireld. This is the statue of Silvius Brabo. Now we enter the realm of mythology and city origin stories that we all love, like Romulus and Remus (Rome), King Lud (London), and He-Man (Manchester). Brabo was a Roman soldier, who cut off the hand of a giant and threw it in the river. The giant in question was a big lad called Druon Antigoon, and he would demand money from people who needed to cross the river Scheldt. (I really hope he would say “Thou Scheldt Not Pass!”) If they didn’t pay up, their hand was chopped off and thrown into the water. I would have thought that made it more difficult to put their hand in their pocket after that but giants might be big but they are not clever. He tried it on with Silvius Brabo. Brabo, who as we can see was stark naked, clearly had, um, balls. He told Druon Antigoon to go and do one, and while he was scratching his head to see if there was a pun on his name, Brabo beat him up. It’s not clear whether he had clothes on before the fight or if they came off during the fight, but in the end Brabo sliced off Antigoon’s hand and slung it into the water. Everyone thought that was hilarious, except Antigoon, who left the story at this point. So the people decided to honour Brabo by calling the region ‘Brabant’ (dubious mythology klaxon #1), and calling the town ‘Antwerpen’ (dubious mythology klaxon #2). Antwerpen means, so the tale goes, ‘hand throw’, from ‘hand-werpen’ in Flemish. Ok, let’s be fair, Antwerp is almost certainly not named after this event (poo-poo on your parade klaxon #1) but it’s a much more fun story than the likely real etymology (something about wharves or mounds on riverbanks, nobody knows for sure) but it’s a fun story and even if it’s not true, we can say it is because who cares.

Antwerp Grote Markt sm

“Hand-throw”, yeah alright. Imagine you are one of all those people Antigoon dismembered, and then they go and name the town “hand-throw”, well it’d be a bit of a slap in the face. More likely it was already called “hand-throw” before Brabo showed up, maybe Antigoon himself named it so people knew what they were getting themselves into. The Grote Markt is a pretty nice square. The statue of Silvius Brabo (after whom the Duchy of Brabant is definitely NOT named; if anything his name comes from that) is in front of the town hall. Around the square are the old guildhall buildings. Antwerp is a historic Flemish merchant port with a rich history. I sat at a little tavern (‘Den Engel’) on the square with a delicious Maredsous beer, wrote some postcards, and drew this. I remember coming here on that damp and gloomy day in 1999; I also remember coming here in early 2000 after a day out in Ostend, and spent much of the evening at a nearby pub where people were singing karaoke. Chatting with locals, I was encouraged to sing too, and I did a version of the Pulp song ‘Help the Aged’, a version in which the words had been replaced with football-themed lyrics, called ‘Help the English’. That version was written by me and my friend Roshan, along with many other popular songs that we had re-clothed in football colours. ‘Help the English’ was probably our favourite, all about how England might need help because they can’t win trophies (no change there then, though the caveat now of course would be that it just means the men’s team). “When did you first realise / You’re never gonna win another World Cup? / Sixty-six, don’t it make you sick / Funny how you’ve won nothing since.” Anyway the Antwerp crowd in the room, well some of them liked it, others were either England fans convinced that Euro 2000 would be their year (spoiler alert, it wasn’t), or people who disliked football and assumed it was just some English hooligan chant, or massive Pulp fans who really wanted to hear the right lyrics. Still, it got a cheer (just one cheer) (and I probably misheard it). There were these two women who walked out, and then came back inside right after I was finished. They actually told me (in that straight-talking Flemish way) that it wasn’t only because I changed the lyrics, or that it was about football, but because I just couldn’t sing at all. I mean, yes, this is true, but ouch. I’m surprised they didn’t throw my hand in the river. Instead, they brought me some sandwiches, for some reason, and I chatted with them all about music until it was time for my train back to Charleroi. The year 2000 was a long long time ago.

last l’il bit o’ Lille

Lille houses behind cathedral

It was nice on my second and final morning in Lille. The rain had stopped, the sky was bright with patches of cloud, and the sketchers were still everywhere. I walked over to the little patch behind the Treille cathedral, as drawn by pretty much every urban sketcher in this whole Rencontre, and drew the colourful little houses. These narrow little buildings reminded me of the ones I had drawn in Liege a few years ago. As I sat on the little bench, more and more sketchers came and started drawing (there is just one in my picture, there were at least seven or eight just in this view by the time I stopped, but I’d alreayd drawn that bit). I spoke to a couple of them in French, exchanging tips on pens and other art materials. I was going to draw the cathedral itself but the morning was already getting away from me. I had booked a train ticket to Brussels for later that morning.

Lille hydrant sm

I did get a couple more quick ones in. This is a Lille fire hydrant, because I have to draw a fire hydrant in each town. I think I have drawn ones like this before in France. You might like to see a Flickr album of my hydrant sketches. Below, a sign I spotted outside one of the ‘estaminets’ (restaurants) nearby, with an example of the local ‘ch’timi’ dialect. It says “Qu’o qu’in minge ichi? Des vraies frites d’ch Nord Chti Miam!!” Now I know you’re thinking “haha, a rude word”. What this actually means is “What can you eat here? Proper fries from the Chti North, yum!” Or something like that. It was time to move on from one place that does great frites to another place that does great frites, Brussels. See you en Belgique.

Lille Chti sign sm

the grand ol’ canyon

Grand Canyon - Grand Viewpoint

After leaving Flagstaff, we drove north through Arizona, watching the landscape continue to change. We passed through the Navajo Nation – our clocks automatically went forward an hour from the rest of Arizona time. It was interesting as we stopped off for a bit to eat as well, the indoor mask enforcement was a much more in place on Navajo land than in the rest of Arizona, it was more like California. The Navajo Nation covers a pretty vast area, the largest Native American reservation in the US. After driving through for a while, there was a pinkish glow to the landscape ahead of us, and it was clear we were approaching canyon country. As the road turned we would start seeing gorges open up, wow that’s quite deep, and they would start getting deeper and you could see that ahead of us was something big that we couldn’t see. We arrived at the Grand Canyon National Park by the entrance furthest to the eats, whcih was a pretty great idea. I was expecting something like we experienced at Yosemite – long lines of cars, massive overcrowding, a couple of hours sat in traffic, but there was none of that at all. In fact I was incredibly impressed at how uncrowded the Grand Canyon NP was. When we first arrived and caught our first real view of the Canyon itself, the scenery just blows your breath away, it takes your mind, it’s like nothing you could really believe. We were here before, 20 years ago, long before our son came along, so this was his first time. We started out at Desert View Point, taking lots of photos, getting the National PArk stamps in my sketchbook, and I did a sketch of the Desert View Watchtower (below), built by the architect Mary Colter back in 1932, inspired by the ancestral Puebloan people of the Colorado Plateau. We also sat for a while outside by the rim and just looked, while I sat on a ledge and drew the scene above. I could only paint the shadows – the colours of the Canyon are a bit overwhelming for a predominantly urban urban sketcher like me, but I wanted to try a bit of Canyon painting. There was actually some snow on the rim, and the weather was bright and sunny but a little cold still, and I still wore my nice warm scarf.

GC-Desert View Watchtower

We drove further along the rim of Canyon to the Grand Canyon Village, where we were staying at a lodge right by the rim. Incredible location, we were lucky to get that. I caught the bus back down towards the South Kaibab trailhead. I was eager to do some hiking into the Canyon, and that was a pretty good trail to be taking on. The shuttle bus services at the Grand Canyon are amazing, all free, very regular, often with entertaining and knowledgeable drivers. I was going to be hiking alone down the South Kaibob trail as my family were resting up a bit, and I went about a mile or so down the narrow zigzagging paths until I reached Ooh-Aah Point. The temperature rose considerably as I descended – apparently the base of Canyon it is as warm as Phoenix, even if there is frost on the rim. I sketched at Ooh-Aah Point, making Eric Cantona jokes to myself  (“Ooh-Aah Canyona”). I got a lot of spectacular photos down there, but you only get to see my sketches, because I’m not organized enough to find and post those too. The Grand Canyon is so deep, man. Looking down at the hikers below who continued down the trail was like looking at ants. It’s nearly 5000 feet to the bottom, where the Colorado river keeps on carving and curving, and a good ten miles across to the north side. While my plan was just to hike to Ooh-Aah Point (about a mile or so) before climbing back up again to meet up with the family, I did start walking down the path a bit further, as I was making good time on foot. Then I realized just how steep it was, and how hot it was in the sun, so I headed skywards again. The climb back out was considerably more strenuous – I can see how hiking the Grand Canyon is like mountaineering in reverse, where the hard part is the bit when you are tired. You have to be careful, and drink lots of water, and there is no water on the trail itself, you have to bring a lot with you. I was pleased to get back to the more shaded zig-zagging paths near to the top, but there were people who were just knackered all along the way. I got to the top again and it felt like an achievement. I do like a hike. As I neared the rim, I saw some people throwing rocks into the Canyon. Not just the youths, but their parents too. Someone else told them not to do so as it was dangerous, but they just glared and kept on doing it anyway. I had seen people down on the trail, hikers with kids, and if a stone thrown down had hit them it could have been serious. I was right above them so I shouted down in my clearest Burnt Oak, “OI! STOP THROWING THEM BLOODY STONES! THERE’S PEOPLE DOWN THERE!” I like to think it echoed around the valleys like the Supreme Being in Time Bandits or something, but they did stop. Fools are gonna fool.

GC-Ooh Aah Point

We stayed in a nice little room at the Bright Angel Lodge, just footsteps from the edge of the Canyon. At night there were so many stars out my poor stretched eyes were popping out of their sockets. I love a bit of star-gazing. We slept ok, except for the noisy heating unit in the room, and I woke up super early before the sun came up and went outside to watch the day break, and of course do some early-morning sketching. It was pretty cold. I drew the small building near our lodge, the Lookout, which dates back to 1914. The Canyon was being filed with deep purple shadows and creamy orange light, but the sky was crisp. Hikers were already out, tenacious groups starting the Bright Angel Trail (that’s a hike I would like to do some day). I do get excited by all the hikers, it’s something I would like to do more of. The only thing is I like to sketch, so I probably need to hike with people that need to take lots of breaks.

GC-The Lookout sm

After drawing this, I was starting to feel quite cold but it was still early, the family was still sleeping and I had another sketch in me. There was a fire hydrant perfectly placed not too far away. Rather than go on a little solo morning hike, I sat and drew this instead. And then…my paints froze. They were acting unusual, beading up in places, not acting how my watercolours would normally act in warm dry Davis. I tried paint more but there was frost in my paint tray. This has never happened to me, but I’d got about halfway through (I had painted the whole previous one no problem) before I had to go back inside to warm the paints up. I was quite pleased with that background though, but Grand Canyon painting is a whole ‘nother ballgame. Fire hydrants however, I know those.

GC-Hydrant

On that second day we did do a lot of exploring, taking the shuttle bus out to the Hermits Rest, on the western end of the park, and did a mixture of hiking and shuttle-bussing back along the rim, taking photos along the way. I did start a couple of sketches, but just quick pencil outlines I never finished off.  The one below was one from the sunset the evening before, by the Grand Canyon Village, I drew all the pencil and then added in the colour after.

GC-Village view

This was an amazing trip and I’m so grateful to my amazing wife for arranging the whole thing and taking us everywhere, she has all the best ideas. We left the Grand Canyon and spent a couple of nights at a hotel resort in Scottsdale (next to Phoenix) where the weather was much hotter, I did no sketching, and we spent a lot of time going around the lazy river. I even saw a real life rattlesnake and a real life gila monster (not to worry, both were in glass cases in the hotel!). It was a nice trip to Arizona.

sketchploring in sunset

Little Shamrock, SF Inner Sunset

Many of my favourite things to do got sidelined during the pandemic. Going to the cinema – I loved doing that. The last thing I’d watched at a cinema was Sonic The Hedgehog; I was determined not to have that be the last thing I saw at a cinema before the cinemas all closed down and replaced with streaming. I love travelling to other countries, not exactly an easy thing to do even now. My last trip to the UK was November 2019. And I love to sketch in pubs. I love to sit at the bar, nice slow pint, sketchbook out, putting the atmosphere of the pub on the paper. Historic old pubs, all the better. I’ve missed that. So, down in the city for the third time in less than three months, I found myself in the Inner Sunset neighbourhood, on my way for an afternoon wandering about Golden Gate Park, because I’ve not really spent much time doing that. I had some new green paints and fancied drawing a bit of foliage. I am usually bored by foliage but I thought, different park innit. However, I needed a wee. I didn’t think I could wait to go looking for the public toilets in the park, so I stopped by the Little Shamrock pub on Lincoln, which dates back to 1893. As I approached, I could see through their open window that they still have a sketch of the pub that I drew in 2013 hung proudly on the wall, next to all the historic photos and articles about the old place. That was a nice surprise, and a sign that maybe I didn’t need to go to the park just yet. so I decided to stop here; you still have to show the vaccination card to get a drink, but it wasn’t very busy and I found a lovely table by that open window for the breeze (and I was sat beneath my old sketch). And over a couple of beers, I drew the scene above, which is my first pub interior since 2019. I was pretty pleased with it. It surely ate into my foliage sketching time, but pah, I prefer sketching a pub. The couple seated at the bar were, I guess, on their way to the baseball to see the Giants, the man was in a Buster Posey jersey. That brings me back to 2012, 2013 myself, when we were watching the Giants a lot ourselves. Back when they were winning stuff. Posey was the young buck; he’s still there. I haven’t watched baseball in about eight years. I think the game I was watching might still be going on. Anyway there is a lot to sketch, all the flags, all the colourful lamps, all the ornately shaped chairs. The dark areas, the light areas, oh I have missed this. I spent a good hour and a half or so in there. Here’s my old exterior sketch on the wall, I love the red frame. Makes me feel like part of the story. 

IMG_3758

And here is my other sketch from 2013, for a bit of ‘Throwback Thursday’ on a Saturday. This was done sat at the bar. I remember listening to a couple next to me talking about the art world, I think they worked in galleries, so I knew I was in good art company. I usually am, in the city. I had just attended the annual ZineFest, and was armed with some of my own zines, that short bar-zine I produced back then, Davis Bar-By-Bar. The guy who worked there even bought one, and really liked my sketches of the day, and not too long after that they must have bought that print of the exterior sketch, because next time I came here with my wife we saw it in there. It’s a great old pub this, maybe my favourite in the city (well top two, I do love Specs down on Columbus) it would be nice to come back in the evening some day. I’m not quite ready for busy bars right now though, but this was a fun way to spend the afternoon, and involved very little foliage sketching. 

Little Shamrock SF

I did go to Golden Gate Park though, eventually, wandered about. But there were a lot of people, a lot of cars, and not really enough things I wanted to draw. There was a long line to go into the Japanese Gardens, and it was a bit expensive for the amount of time I’d have been in there, so I gave it a miss. I wandered without sketching, and headed back to the Inner Sunset.

SF Hydrant Inner Sunset

I used a bit of the green paint. After stopping for a cookie at a counter, I crouched down on the corner of Judah and 5th and sketched this hydrant with a nobbly top. There’s always a fire hydrant. These ones with the little metal bobbles on their hat are very specific to San Francisco. I was told years ago that it was for the horses, the fire horses would be tied to the big ball on top of the hydrant. That’s true, I’m going to say. It has been a while since I drew a hydrant like this too, I think. 

9th St San Francisco

I had wanted to go across the park to the area along Clement, to finally find Green Apple Books, to explore a part of town I’d not been to. Alas I never made it. But there is another branch of Green Apple Books right here, “By The Park”, so I went in for a browse and picked up a little postcard book of artwork from My Neighbour Totoro. I had a little bit of time before I had to jump on the Muni back downtown, so I stood in the street and drew as much as a I could of the shop and the view up 9th. The fog had rolled in by this point, but it had been a really nice day. I had to finish it off later, but I was tiring and needed to get back to Davis. Another well-worth-it day out in the city, I can’t wait for the next one. I’m already studying the map for more exploring. ‘Sketchploring’. I am a sketchplorer. Or maybe a sketchsplorer?    

oakland on sunday

Oakland Tribune tower

Despite living here in northern California since my twenties, I had never been to Oakland. Never! Well, I’d been through it on the BART, on the way to San Francisco, but that’s not the same. And we flew out of and back into the airport once. or was it twice? Also, on my very first trip to the US, way back in 2002, my future brother-in-law took me to a baseball game at the Coliseum, where we watched the Oakland A’s play against the Cleveland Indians. That was back when the Indians had their old ‘Chief Wahoo’ logo. It was the first time I had experienced American sport, and it was completely different from going to the football in England. There were families there, they all did this ballpark song after about the seventh innings, you spent most of the time getting food and beer, but they had TVs in the food line and the toilets so you could see what was going on, and then there were the garlic fries, an experience I’ll never forget. So anyway that was my only experience of Oakland, and since living in Davis, I had never actually been to Oakland proper, walked around, sketched. Why not? I’m not entirely sure, but I don’t go down to the Bay Area very often and usually just go to San Francisco, and occasionally Berkeley. Oakland was never talked about as “oh you should go to Oakland, yeah”, more “oh you should not go to Oakland, yeah”, usually making references to the murder rate. So I had just never been. That’s not that unusual really, I wasn’t actively avoiding it, just never got around to it. There are places in London I’ve never been. I’ve never been to the Thamesmead Estate. Bad example, actually, that’s hard to get to from north London and has a bit of a crime-y reputation. (So maybe it’s a good example?) Ok, well I’ve never been to Fulham. I’ve never been to Richmond Park. I’ve never been to Putney, supposed to be nice there, I’ve never bothered going. Further afield, I’ve never been to Wales. I’ve never been to Bournemouth, or the Peak District, or Hadrian’s Wall. So Oakland is just another place that’s just there, it’s not going anywhere, and I’ve just never really gotten around to going to. So a couple of weeks ago I decided fairly spur of the moment to put that right. I got on a train to the Bay Area (see my previous post if you don’t believe me), jumped on the BART at Richmond (and it was a very modern BART, much has changed in two years), and got out at 12th Street Oakland. It was a Sunday lunchtime, and was pretty quiet. You had the usual characters shuffling about that you get in any big city street, no more than Davis really, the fact it was a Sunday meant it felt a little bit empty of usual foot traffic. Not a lot of people come to hang out in downtown Oakland on a Sunday, like many American cities actually. I knew I wanted to go and sketch the tall tower of the Oakland Tribune (‘Tribune Tower’; not really used by the newspaper any more) so I found that, stood by a bus stop and sketched the top of it. I didn’t know what to expect of downtown Oakland, so I thought I could maybe draw this, look around, and if nothing else seems interesting I’d just jump back on the BART to Berkeley, which I at least already know. I ended up staying the rest of the afternoon in Oakland, just exploring a bit, and I’m glad I did because I found a few gems, and a vibe I don’t find in San Francisco, and certainly not Davis.

Oakland Fox Theater

I wandered about, not exactly sure where to go, having no real orientation for the area. There’s nowhere in downtown Oakland that anyone has ever recommended to me to go and sketch so I was climbing free solo. Ok, I wasn’t climbing free solo, I was walking around a few streets within a block or two of a BART station, I’m hardly doing the Appalachian Trail. I followed my nose though. I drew a fire hydrant (below) because they look a bit different, and you have to capture one wherever you go. Then I found the beautiful Fox Oakland Theatre, with the big Oakland sign, and found a doorway with some shade across the street to draw it in. It opened in 1928, but as the sign says it has been ‘dark’ since 3/13/20, that fateful day when These Unprecedented Times began. I always struggle to capture the grandness of a tall ornate theatre on a small Moleskine page, but it was too sunny to stand beneath it and draw with a sense of perspective so across the street in a shady doorway I hid. The building closed in the mid-sixties and was used only occasionally for a number of years, and in the mid-seventies they nearly tore it down and put up a parking lot. But Oakland knew what they had before it was gone, and so plans to Joni the Mitchell out of that old building were scrapped and it was placed on the National Register of Historic Buildings. Eventually it was restored and refurbished, and reopened in 2009 as a concert hall. Now of course, still closed during the pandemic… but that’s changing, and on their website it looks like shows have been announced from September, people like Wilco, Judas Priest, and… Madness! Apparently Madness will be playing there next May. Wow! Might have to look into that.

oakland hydrant

I got hungry. I had passed a sign for “Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken” earlier, and that sounded good. I mean it’s World Famous so it must be good, right? I ain’t joking – best decision ever. I got a three piece meal of white meat chicken, and WOW it was huge, and absolutely delicious. This was no KFC, no late-night London pre-night-bus chicken, this was a lot of tender meat with the most amazing batter, spicy with the hot sauce but with refreshing coleslaw to offset it. I sat inside the restaurant (good choice, this would have been too big to eat out on the street), and the server was really friendly.  Made the whole day trip worth it. Gus's Fried Chicken Oakland

I wandered about some more. There are lots of murals in downtown Oakland, particularly in support of black lives matter, and black rights movements in general. Oakland is a well known African-American community city and many prominent black figures have come from Oakland, such as Ryan Coogler, the director who made Marvel’s Black Panther (the opening scenes of that film are set in Oakland) as well as Fruitvale Station. MC Hammer is from Oakland. Oakland is also the birthplace of Vice President Kamala Harris. I wandered around a few blocks, looking for something to draw. Outside a bar there was an open sir seating area fenced off, with loud music playing. I saw that there was a drag artist singing (actually miming) and dancing along to songs from Madonna and the like, putting in brilliant colourful performances. It looked like there were several performing one after another, not to a big crowd, just a few seated people drinking, but it was pretty magnificent to watch. It’s Pride Month, I think it was related to that. So I listened to the music and drew nearby, this old building on the corner of 15th. Further down the street, I came across a small gallery that was closed, but the name jumped right out at me: “Burnt Oak Gallery“! It was clearly meant to be. I didn’t have a lot of time until my BART back to Richmond (they aren’t too frequent on Sundays), and I got the train back to Davis having finally checked Oakland off my list, and I will be back for more of that fried chicken.

Oakland 15th and Franklin 060621

Mele Kalikimaka!

Hawaii Petroglyphs, big island
Mele Kalikimaka! It’s Christmas Day in Hawaii. We got up and did all the Christmas stuff, and then went to meet up with some others for a bit of lunch and some Christmas day drinks, followed by an afternoon in the ocean. It was cloudier, even a bit rainy, but in a Hawaii way, not a British way. Swimming in a warm ocean is definitely not something you do in England on Christmas day, nor even in California. Hawaii’s pretty nice. I didn’t bring my sketchbook into the ocean. I did do a little bit of sketching at the ancient Hawaiian petroglyph preserve at Waikoloa, a sacred rocky ground filled with carved patterns on the stone.
Hawaii hydrant
I also drew this green fire hydrant nearby to our rented house, it’s lovely isn’t it.
Pu'uhonua o Honaunau Hawaii
On Boxing Day (which is not what Americans call it but I’m British) we took a drive down the side of the Big Island, going to Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau national historical park (https://www.nps.gov/puho/index.htm), which was fairly spectacular. It is an ancient Hawaiian place of refuge, where those broke a law (or ‘kapu’) could flee to evade punishment. Some beautiful old Hawaiian kii protector statues and tikis, as well as demonstrations of traditional Hawaiian building and craftwork.
Hawaii tiki at Pu'uhonua o Honaunau

Here are a few photos from the preserve. The rocky black lava fields that meet the sea were home to so much wildlife, especially the big honu, the beautiful sea turtles that are so symbolic of Hawaii.

Afterwards we spent a rainy day along the Kona coast, visiting a coffee plantation, stopping off in a little town called Kealakekua, having lunch at Annie’s Burgers & Beer (the beer was delicious, the vegan ‘taro burger’ I had was much less my cup of tea), looking at ukuleles in a little music shop, and trying chocolate covered ‘donkey balls’. Not real donkey balls of course, they’re actually nuts. Not those sort of nuts. Check them out here: https://donkeyballstore.com/

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We finished off the day with a beer at Kona Brewing in Kailua-Kona. It was pretty crowded there, and looking back in this time of social distancing, it seems like a long time until we are in such close quarters and having pints and pizzas again. I like the Big Island. The last thing I drew there on our trip was this hibiscus flower, one of many blooming around our house. Mele Blooming Kalikimaka!
Hawaii hibiscus

A Pair of Days at Disneyland Paris

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And so after so many places in Belgium and Holland we returned to France, and to our first visit to Disneyland Paris. We stayed at the Disneyland Hotel for that walk-right-into-the-park experience, and we were not disappointed. My wife is a huge Disney parks fan but has only been to the original (like a million times) so this was a novel experience. I have to say I really liked it, it wasn’t as crowded, the sidewalks seemed to be wider, the two arcades behind Main Street were nice and accessible and I really liked the Castle. I had to sketch it. Everything was a bit different from California, Space Mountain for example (which is still Hyperspace Mountain) repeated Star Wars phrases in French (naturally) and had an outside starting point, while Thunder Mountain Railroad was definitely longer and faster, and was located on an island that the ride went under a tunnel to get to. I also really liked Pirates of the Caribbean (“les morts ne raccontent pas d’histoires!”), probably more than the Californian one. The maze of caves near the pirate ship too was so much fun to run around. And of course, serving champagne on Main Street during fireworks (though I didn’t indulge). So yes, we liked it.
Belgium Thalys to Paris sm
Our Thalys train from Brussels to Marne-La-Vallee was, amazingly, on time. I was sketching with the brush pen here, my son wearing his new Charleroi shirt. We spent some of our time on the train playing MarioKart on the Switch (I lost). When we got into Disneyland we had dinner at ‘King Ludwig’s Castle’, a lavishly decorated Bavarian themed restaurant, and we had hearty Bavarian fare (on our first night in France).
Disneyland Paris Fire Hydrant sm
On the other side of the main park, in the place where California Adventure would be, is a second park called Parc Walt Disney Studios. I liked it there, although there was not as much going on, except the incredible Ratatouille ride. That one we enjoyed. In that whole area there were a number of mobile food carts, one from each culinary area of France (crepes from Bretagne, tarte flambee from Alsace, cider from Normandy etc), and then around the corner there were more, but from different European countries (we had some nice sangria and tapas from Spain, while my son went back to enjoying his favourite Belgian waffles).
Disneyland Paris Ping Pong sm
The hotel was incredible. I enjoyed spending time in the pool, and they even gave my son a ball so he could have a kickaround on the grass (that made his trip). Above, I sketched my family playing ping-pong. Below, I tried one more fancy drink this time in the music-themed Cafe Fantasia. It was called the African Dream, made with rum, papaya, St Germain liqueur, lychee puree and bissap, I don’t know, I’ve heard of rum. It was tasty (and expensive), I got it because it looked like a vacation.

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Disneyland Paris Thunder Mountain sm
Above: Thunder Mountain Railroad, on an island in the middle of a lake. I drew this while tired legs were resting, colouring in later.
Eurostar Paris to London sm<
And finally, one more train journey, this time the Eurostar from Marne La Vallee to London, going back to the UK to see the family, go to a Spurs game at the new stadium, and hopefully unwind after a very busy trip.

Alleviating All Anxiety of Amsterdam

Amsterdam Dancing Houses sm
Moving on to the next day and the final day of the Symposium, I woke up Saturday morning definitely feeling the heat exhaustion. I decided to skip my final workshop (I did go and let them know so they wouldn’t be waiting for me) and find a spot to sketch peacefully. I hadn’t yet drawn the dancing houses along the banks of the Amstel from Groenburgwal, so I found a nice bench and drew away. I met another sketcher doing the same. It was quiet, the weekend heat had not yet started cranking up, and my stress-headache was clearing up immediately. I didn’t need to be in a class, stopping and starting and rushing, being “on”, I needed to be in “breathe-in, breathe-out, sketch” mode. It worked. I had met Lapin earlier the morning, and I was going to go and sketch with them (as it turns out he and Gerard and co went to sketch my hotel), but I decided to draw the Dancing Houses. They are impressive. Many houses seem to ‘dance’ in Amsterdam, leaning this way or that – my perspective tip of following the windows to find the vanishing point on the horizon doesn’t work as well here, where the windows follow lines more suited to more Marty Feldman’s binoculars (Young Frankenstein reference). Crooked buildings are fun to draw. By the way I did overhear one sketch instructor scoff at counting the windows on houses in Amsterdam, but counting the windows really helped the composition of each element, and also helps get the scale right. Besides, in Amsterdam they are usually three windows across as a rule. The patchwork nature of the architecture breaks up the monotony you find in many cities, it’s just so fun to draw. Looking back I probably could have had the energy to do some more group sketching and plough on, be a bit more sociable and awake, but mental health came first and I look at this sketch and immediately I feel more relaxed. Breathe in, breathe out, sketch.
Amsterdam Montelbaanstoren sm

I wandered about a bit more, bumping into the occasional sketching friend, I met Nina Johansson (long term urban sketch idol of mine since the beginning) teaching a class nearby here, the tall Montelbaanstoren. It was pretty peaceful over here too, a couple of blocks from my hotel, in fact the workshop I had skipped was being taught close by, but I decided not to join late. I sat by the canal and drew the tower as best I could, with a bike in the foreground. I was going to add full colour, but stopped at the blues, it just felt right for the relaxed mood.

After doing a few sketches of the hotel (I posted those already), I wandered over to Niewmaarkt to enjoy one of my favourite discoveries in Amsterdam – poffertjes. Little mini pancakes, from a friendly guy called Tony Benson. I spoke with Tony and a woman who was with him, we talked about Belgian footballers (maybe because I was wearing my Belgian shirt again), she was really inot Eden Hazard and asked who my favourite Belgian player was (Super Jan Vertonghen obviously!). The poffertjes were small but delicious. I could eat some of those now.

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In the afternoon, there would be another sketchwalk, over near the NEMO center, culminating in a huge group photo (the ones I usually miss at every symposium), and then the final reception over at the Muziekgebouw. I was going to meet up with everyone there, but at the hotel I realized I really needed more rest, not more rushing around in the heat. Here’s how I rested:

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I also rested by spending an hour or so in the amazing blue-tiled pool in the hotel’s basement, and relaxing in the hot-tub. Best decision I ever made. Matt Brehm was right, you don’t have to draw.
The sketchwalk was nice, and although I turned up too late for any sketching, I did meet up with a lot people I had not seen during the symposium. Many of the local groups got together for their local group photos – I am one of the Californians, but I wasn’t quick enough to get a photo with them. I did at least make the final group photo, but there are so many people in the picture that I obviously can’t be spotted, even with my bright red Belgium 1984 shirt. Actually though, in this photo of the whole group (by Belgian friend and photographer Marc Van Liefferinge) I can be spotted near the middle of the back. Proof I made it there.

You know what, there are loads of sketches you can find from other symposium attendees, if you go to Flickr and search through the tag “amsterdam symposium“. Of course most people now just bounce them out on Instagram and so on too. There are a LOT of Amsterdam sketches to be found. I went over to the final reception (a very very long walk, I went with Mauro and Fabien, though Fabien stopped on the way for a beer and to wait for Gerard, they were not coming to the reception but actually driving back to Liège that night). At the reception I caught up with all the people I had not spoken to as much so far, such as Gabi, and Liz (we snuck up on Paul Wang and got our annual symposium pic of the three of us, guerilla-style), Elizabeth, James, and of course Rita, and did a little people sketching, but mostly chatting. I also got to meet Danny Gregory for the first time, he was there with all the Sketchbook Skool lot, that’s a big thing now. I had been a chapter in one of his books years ago, the one with my drawing of Vipins ont he cover, and we’d tried to arrange a video interview to go on his website but it was always dinnertime in my house and we never did it, so it was nice to finally meet. (Though I suspect I he didn’t remember who I was). I also met a number of people who I’ve since started following on Instagram, it’s what these whole events are about really. And then in the end, it was the gathering off for dinner, I went off with a big group of the usual sketchers, and we had a great evening. The best bit though was finishing off with some late night or early morning) car sketching. A bunch of us led by Lapin sat in a narrow street by a canal and drew a couple of classic Citroens. This is apparently a tradition at the Clermont Ferrand festival. My habit of sketching fire hydrants at 3am when I travel does not seem so odd now; these are my people. One of though people though, Hugo Costa, nearly fell in the canal when his stool broke – lucky escape! Here’s what I drew, and a photo of some of us sketching in the darkness of Amsterdam.
Amsterdam Night Car Sketching sm

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Now this little fire hydrant I actually drew at night on the first night in Amsterdam, but I’ve saved until now because why not. As for the blog post title, “Alleviating All Anxiety of Amsterdam”, I mean it says it all but seriously I might come back and change all these titles some day.
Amsterdam Hydrant sm

And that was it for another Symposium. I have more Amsterdam sketches to share here, plus a bit more Belgium, a bit of Disneyland Paris, a few from London, and then loads more of Davis, then some from Santa Monica, and Portland again, and Hawaii. But after this long day of relaxful sketching Citroens by lamplight, I had a well-earned lie-in on Sunday. After all the heat, there was a little rain coming, but so were my family.

looking over liège

Liege hydrants
I took the train across the linguistic divide that cuts Belgium in two and landed in Liège, a city I had last visited in the final months of the twentieth century. I was going there for exactly 24 hours, to visit my long-time urban sketching friend and art hero, Gerard Michel, and also sketch with some other Belgian sketching friends. Liège is a fairly big city, larger than I remember, and the architecture is very Walloon, lots of brick houses and steep hills. Gerard and I went for a morning walk around his neighbourhood, up steep paths and down long stairs, overlooking rooftops and spires and trees and the great river Meuse. Liège is a lively city, with a lot of atmosphere, a university city, and a very sketchable one, but in a different way to Ghent. We met up with Fabien Denoel, who I’ve known and followed since Barcelona 2013, and Chris Damaskis, as well as Danni Hoedamkers whom I had sketched with in Ghent, and Martine Kervagoret, visiting from Paris on the way to the Symposium, whom I first met back in Lisbon 2011 I think. We sketched up at the Terrasses des Minimes, overlooking the city, and it was very peaceful. I have seen many of gerard’s skethces from up there, as well as Fabiens, but also Lapin’s Florian Afflerbach’s, Nina Johansson’s, all the great sketchers who have visited there before, so I knew this scene well already, and I’m glad to have sketched it myself.
Liege rooftops des Minimes
I liked this picture of an apple that I took too.

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We walked into town for lunch, going to an old Liègeois cafe called Chez Stockis / Cafe Lequet, near the banks of the Meuse. We sat and chatted in French (I am very rusty), looked through sketchbooks, had cold beer and ate very local food. Most people had these things called ‘boulots’, which are these large meatballs (I don’t eat the meat so I didn’t have those), but I had Tomates Crevettes, which were these little shrimp sat on a big tomato, with frites. The cafe is old and a local favourite, but I heard that it would be closing. In fact I think by now, M. Stockis has closed up for the last time, though the cafe may still be going on (there’s a FB page). The patron, Guillaume Stockis, is there in the background of the sketch below (which is of Fabien Denoel). On the ceiling is hanging the marionette of Tchantchès, a local Walloons character dating back to the 19th century, dressed in his traditional miners’ clothes. You can learn about him here, if you can speak Walloons. This here is the heart of Liège.

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After lunch we walked across the Meuse to the Outremeuse neighbourhood and sketched at the roundabout of the Rue Pont St Nicolas. It was getting hot, the heatwave was coming in, and regular cold drinks were necessary. I sat next to a Friterie – the Friterie Tchantches of course – and drew as best I could. I also wandered about a little, as I had learned (from one of Gerard’s sketches) that the best waffles in Liège were at a place just across the street. Sadly it was closed, so I had one from a chain nearby, which was not as good. The waffles of Liège are a bit different from the waffles of Brussels, usually smaller and rounder, and they remind me of that Belgian film Rosetta, which I saw back in 1999 when I was in Charleroi, a story about a young woman in Liège who at one point works in a waffle truck.

Liege Outremeuse

Going back a few hours, the sketch below was the view from the guest room at Gerard’s house, I had woken up early (jetlag), and needed to practice the sketching. The bells at the local church were playing Bob Dylan, Blowin’ in the Wind, which always reminds me of when I lived in Belgium, when I listened to Bob Dylan a lot, and that was the first song on the CD I had bought. I would listen to that when looking out over the rooftops from my 13th floor room, so perhaps this was the universe welcoming me back to Wallonia.
Liege view from window
And as you know, I like to draw fire hydrants, so I drew three of them in Liège. And here also is Gerard, on the steep Montagne de Beuren, showing me the spot where he had once drawn a spectacular 360 degree picture of the whole scene – he gave me a print of it a decade ago, I do love it. It was funny seeing the real place in real life.
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Here is Gerard’s sketchbook, and as you can see I show up in it twice! A huge honour. I’m wearing my 1984 classic Belgium shirt, crouching over my book as always.

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After sketching the roundabout, I walked down to the shade beneath the bridges crossing the Meuse. There was a smell of wee. The footbridge is the Passarelle Saucy, and I think I remember this bridge from that one time I came here twenty years ago, but I don’t remember it being called Saucy. What a brilliant name for a bridge. And no, I won’t be doing any sauce or saucy based jokes here.
Liege Passarelle Saucy
We crossed back over the river, walked about the city-centre a bit, before stopping off at the Place St Denis to draw the side of the church there. The weather was really getting hot by now. Gerard’s son Antoine joined us, I’ve met him a number of times. It was nice having dinner with Gerard’s family at his home the evening before, he made a really delicious chicken meal. I was delighted to take a look at his sketchbook room, his inventions, and we looked through a large map book of 17th or 18th century Belgium with Fabien, scouring it for every village; a small country with a big and detailed history. Belgium has only been the country of Belgium since 1830, but every area has a long hisroty, often of being ruled by some foreign power like the Habsburgs, or the French, or the Dutch, or the Spanish; Liège for many years was ruled by the Prince-Bishops of Liège, the princes-évêques, and the next time I am here I will draw the magnificent palace that still dominates the skyline. This is also, possibly, the city of Charlemagne’s birth, though nobody knows for sure. It might be Aachen, which isn’t far away, and was his capital. The city I was in the day before, Ghent, was the birthplace of another great Holy Roman Emperor called Charles, whose name lives on in one of my favourite beers, Charles Quint (Kaizer Karel).
Liege Sketchers
The Church of St.Denis dates back to the late 900s AD, founded by someone called Notker of Liège. I added the colour later on the train out of town. I spent exactly 24 hours in Liège. We all went for a cold beer in the city square, before Gerard took me to the station, the phenonemally futuristic cathedral of Guillemins, and I just made it onto a train to go back in time to Charleroi. A la prochaine fois, Liège!
Liege St Denis