Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Belgium Part 1 - Antwerp (and a blip of Brussels)

They told me our flight was cancelled to Brussels less than a week before we were to leave. 

The powers that be, namely the Daesh demons, changed our dates which were not within our schedule (days off, hotels, etc.) so I asked the travel agent to switch port of entry to Amsterdam, where we would be at the end of our trip anyway. It took four days to confirm, because apparently the airline doesn’t work on weekends, it being Irish and not a very good airline, to be honest. After a short layover in Dublin, which succeeded in making me wish to go to that city, we made our way to Amsterdam, where we would take a short dinner break before taking the high speed Thalys to Brussels. It cost double what the slow train does. It cost more than that, as it turns out.

There was a problem of some sort with the Thalys train, like it was run by Metro or something, so we had to take a slow train to Rotterdam to catch the “high speed Thalys” to Brussels. It was neither high speed, nor a Thalys, and worse, Chris lost his wallet in the transfer, perhaps the victim of pickpocketing, but more likely the victim of his own carelessness. So before we even reached our hotel, he had no money for the trip. Dumbass.

Anyway, we arrived in Brussels and checked into our hotel too late to wander around, thanks to the train issues, as it took as long as a slow train would but for twice the price. (I will be writing to request a partial refund.) We slept a lot but woke up in the wee hours and watched some baseball on MLB.TV, though the Reds were playing in another garbagefest so it wasn’t all that fun. In the morning I had a cappuccino on a terrace across from the hotel despite the cold and rain and let Chris sleep as I watched soldiers patrol the streets of Brussels and thought about the future when the scourge of Islamic jihad is in the past, wondering if I would be alive to see it. I am not afraid of Daesh. I am not afraid but too many of you are and if you want to truly see the end of this evil you will travel, too, lest you just accept it. That makes you complicit. You might as well strap a bomb to your chest because your fear allows it to continue. Changing your Facebook avatar to the flag of some attacked country is worse than lazy; it’s fake and useless. Go to that country and support them with your presence.

We ate a slow brunch at the hotel with French speaking waiters and I struggled to come up with the words to say in French. I am lousy at speaking any language, even English. We had stayed at The Metropole, which had seen its heyday in the twenties, that much was obvious. Sure, the hotel displayed a five-star rating and the kind of plats d’arte only a grand chef can produce, but the interior was worn by time and reputation and I think the shine had been lost long ago. You could feel the spirits of the place roaming the halls like you'd traveled back in time if you played your imagination right. I’d be willing to bet Hemingway once stayed there in the days of the Lost Generation, and probably Fitzgerald and Stein and maybe even Joyce though he was not part of their group. It just seems like a place straight out of a Hemingway story, where a Lady Brett type drank absinthe and longed for the abstract things she could never have, like love and peace.

Antwerp train station

We made our way to Antwerp instead of looking around Brussels because our next hotel was there and because we were flat out tired from the flight and the train and all the weeks that had led up to our trip and the stress of waiting for the airline to get back to us and everything else that exists in our lives. We would stay three nights in Antwerp, which is a good enough length to unpack a bit and an excellent location to explore Flanders due to its close proximity to all the cities. The plan was to spend one day in Antwerp, one day in Ghent, and one day in Bruges. We never made it to Bruges, as that plan was too ambitious for our energy levels. I rarely miss being twenty-something, but at times like this, I really do. Chris probably just wishes he were thirty something. I let him take a nap when we arrived while I wandered around a bit thinking everything would be familiar and finding I was wrong.

I had been to Antwerp once before for a study tour during my year in Luxembourg, but I found that the clock tower was the only sight I remembered. I had memories, of course, but they mostly revolved around the mystery of why we had gone there for school and who was Christophe Plantin and what they were saying at the Flemish puppet show, and only about 30 people or so on this Earth would understand the humor in it all. (I wrote about it here.)

Wandering around in the cold rain was not ideal. We had finally been given the gift of Spring in Washington and here we were back to winter. I must have been cold because I was having some troubles taking decent photos but here are some of the splendid architecture in this city that is the capital of the world diamond trade and the third largest port in Europe.

Pretty buildings, ugly day

Jupiter, Roman god of the sea, is all over Antwerp

More sea references

Mercury, patron of commerce, is all over the city

Need a MUDEC person to confirm if this is indeed the site of the infamous Flemish puppet show

The old and the new

This bar dates back to 1565

Belgian beers

In the city center is a statue of Brabo throwing Antigone’s hand into the river. Brabo was a nephew of Julius Caesar. In Roman times, ships had to pay a nominal toll to pass a point at the river. Antigone was a giant who exploited the land and terrorized the shipping industry. He took fifty percent of all the stock from the ships, and if anyone refused, he had to fight Antigone, who always won because he was a giant. As a warning, he would cut off the beaten sailor’s hand and throw it in the river. Brabo was led to the giant at the hand of the gods and fought him to defeat with the help of Jupiter, the sea god himself. He then cut off Antigone’s hand and threw it into the river.

The city really is quite beautiful.

This guy couldn't take the wind

Building the cathedral

I ducked into a blues bar to warm up a bit, where I found a bartender who seemed to regard me with suspicion or annoyance, me being the camera wielding tourist and all. But I sat there and drank my De Konnick quietly and tried to look up some information on Antwerp on my phone and discovered that yes, Christophe Plantin is truly a major attraction. The museum is actually a UNESCO World Heritage Site. (I seem to be racking those up these days.) To be fair, I know that Plantin and his partner owned a publishing house in the time shortly after the printing press was invented and that they published major works at the beginning of the European Enlightenment. I just don’t know how that related to a course on the history of political philosophy except that maybe Plantin had published Edmond Burke, although I think even Burke was later than Plantin.

We ended up chatting and it turns out that he (the bartender, not Plantin, dead as he has been for centuries) was interesting conversation, giving me insight into the Flemish of today and being willing to share his opinions, although the veil over his thoughts of the Dutch was quite thin.

He suggested we see a live jazz band a few blocks away and I finally got Chris to come out, although he had trouble walking down the one street that connected the hotel to find the Grote Markt where I was, but he is directionally challenged so that is to be expected. I mean, pretty hard to find the center of the city to where all the signs point, right? The sun started to come out so we walked around a bit before we headed to a place called Muze. The band were pretty good despite the idea of Belgians playing jazz being strange. We talked to the drummer for a while and I drank La Chouffe beer which means “Gnome” in Belgian French. We pay an arm for Belgian beer in Washington and there it costs us a couple of euros, and of course it’s not “Belgian beer” there, it’s just beer.

Gnomes can be evil, I guess, as one jumped up from the cobblestone streets and caused me to trip on our way back from the jazz place. As I was carrying my camera, I sought to protect it from the fall and landed on the back of my hand, breaking a bone in it. No, I haven’t gone to a doctor because it’s only a minor injury, but it was quite swollen and there were mobility issues and once my whole arm went numb but that was only for a couple of minutes and that was because of the intense pain I experienced after accidentally hitting it on a wall as I walked up a ridiculously narrow and dangerous winding staircase to the toilets of the restaurant where we ate brunch on day two. Whew. I managed the injury with ice and ibuprofen for the rest of the trip and having the camera in my hand the whole time was enough protection and immobilization to sort of forget about it once the swelling went down. (Having had a full day of typing in the office and now on this post, I am remembering very well the injury. We’ll see how it goes in the next couple of days.) Anyway, here are the rest of the pics from the evening:

The Antwerp Marathon was the next morning

Mercury, again

One last bit on the Mercury thing - You can see Mercury holding a rod of snakes in the pics above. You will often see the Rod of Mercury (Caduceus) as a symbol of medicine in the US, which is wrong. It's supposed to be the Rod of Asclepius (I saw an Asklepios sanctuary in Greece.) Asclepius was a healer. Mercury was a patron of commerce. You will see insurance and pharmaceutical companies use the Rod of Mercury instead of Asclepius, as they are concerned about money, not healing. #themoreyouknow

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