Saturday, November 24, 2001

Antwerp and Brussels, We Think!

Antwerp and Brussels, We Think!

Our tour for Antwerp and Brussels was scheduled for 10:00 am this morning, so we needed to get to the restaurant for our breakfast when they opened at 8:00. As I went to push the door open, I almost sprained my wrist as the door was still locked at 8:10. Employees were working away inside, so surely they must have forgotten to unlock the door. We waited patiently, but when they spotted us, one young, blonde beauty came to the door with a smile and said that they don’t open until 9:00 on Saturday. We would have to pass over breakfast here and pay for it elsewhere in order to be timely for our bus tour.

When the bus arrived, we boarded with seventy-eight others who were anxious to see the joys of Belgium. This is getting repetitive, but I have been to Brussels before, but Ron has not. I spent three days there in 1984 and it was the longest three days I had ever spent in one place, almost. Thinking that seventeen years was plenty of time to gain some excitement, Ron should experience it at least. Neither of us had been to Antwerp.

The tour guide was an older woman. She looked stylishly mode for the 70’s in her brown vinyl over the calf boots, plum and cream plaid skirt, plum jacket with gold buttons, and bright purple chenille scarf with her short reddish hair. I would never think about wearing brown boots with purple of any shade, but I could forgive her this fashion faux pas as she was of another generation. She had a voice that was a combination of a hypnotist and a sex goddess. The bus was a double decker and she sat on the lower level with the driver. Her voice floated through the speakers like a long lost lover who needed to convince us that she still cared. Her soothing, loving voice and expressions, which were only in English with a delightful Dutch accent, started with descriptions from the moment we left the curb in front of the Holland International office. Corrine, our guide had us under her spell immediately and we were all putty in her hands. Unfortunately, her voice was so soothing and caressing, almost all of the people on the top level of the bus were asleep within a half hour. As we approached Antwerp, four hours later, we heard the magical voice say, “I don’t know whether all of you are awake or not, but we are coming into Antwerp momentarily.” As if the spell were released, everyone came back to the land of the living once again to prepare to disembark.

She did not hide the fact that the Belgium people are not her favorites in spite of the fact that she does these tours. Corrine, explained that the Belgium people are quite slow, so to make sure they know we are short of time if we order something in a restaurant. According to our golden voiced hostess, the country is a combination of the Flemish who speak a Dutch dialect, plus the French and German speakers, though only French and Flemish are considered national languages and all signs are in both tongues. We were told that there is a great deal of animosity among the provinces within Belgium, which consists of nine provinces and each has their own type of local government. She said that they are notoriously poor drivers and that is because one did not need to have a driver’s license in Belgium until 1965. Therefore, there are many people on the road who have received their license without any qualification. Belgium is smaller than Holland. The population of the country is ten million people. On a positive note, she did include that some of the most beautiful lace comes from Antwerp and Brussels chocolate is difficult to compete with.

The weather produced a heavy mist and none of us except Corrine, the tour guide had an umbrella. We were marched into the large square in Antwerp, where the past and present function of the buildings was explained to us. Then we were giving time to look around and get something to eat with multiple warnings. We were warned that pickpockets are everywhere and that they come in assorted forms. Though, we did not need Belgium francs to stop in certain restaurants, if we pay with guilders, make sure that we received the correct change. We learned this lesson the hard way, but there was not way to refute it. We paid for our tea and Brussels waffles with a fifty guilder note and received change in Belgium francs worth about twenty-two guilders when it should have been twenty-six. There are seventeen Belgium francs to the Dutch guilder and forty-two to the U.S. dollar. By the time you do all of the math with the large Belgium amounts on the menu, divide by seventeen and then do the same with your change, it is time for the group to reorganize for the bus.

Many of the sites were from the bus, since there was no consideration for bus parking at NATO and other internationally important places. We stopped in Antwerp for a visit to a lace shop. Belgium is famous for it’s lacework. We had a demonstration and many of the women came on the tour for the opportunity to purchase lace. It is a cottage industry and the women work from home creating extraordinary pieces of art with thread.

In Brussels, we were led to the ‘famous’ statue of the little boy peeing. People come from all over the world to see this statue, talk about needing to get a life. From there we were shown the best chocolatier in Brussels. The place was mobbed to say the least, but Ron managed to get in and buy a small package of seashell chocolates that are sold in the States. Probably, the handmade choices would be worth the wait, but that would necessitate acquiring more Belgium francs that have no worth in Holland. Come January 1st, this problem will be solved with the Euro. Then the last commentary on land was of the Grand Place in Brussels. This is one of the most beautiful squares I have ever seen only because the architecture is different and appealing from one building to the one next to it. However, it was now getting dark, the mist was heavy and visibility was poor with eyes, so a camera could not improve the view at all. This is why they sell so many postcards.

The weather was really dismal for a day tour such as this, but it isn’t sunny skies guaranteed. As we continued on, nothing was visible through the rain coated windows on the outside and fogging up from the inside. The ride was long and we were all grateful that the next stop at 7:00 pm was our dinner break at a self-serve restaurant. We had happened to start speaking to a woman from Hungary. She had gone to the States as a nanny and at the time, did not know a word of English. We went to New Jersey. When I asked where, she said I had probably never heard of it, but it was a town called Red Bank. Coincidentally, Red Bank is about ten miles from where I was born and raised and is now our current mailing address. At dinner, we quizzed her about places to see in Hungary besides Budapest where we will be living short term. She was gracious enough to write down five different suggestions of what would be interesting to see during the season that we are going to be there. Of course, she said that if we were going to be there in the Spring or Summer, the list would be quite long. We asked for her e-mail address so that we can quiz her further and buy her dinner in Budapest when we all arrive there. She is still doing some traveling before returning. After her time as a nanny in New Jersey, she traveled Europe and then flew to Peru to hike the Inca trail in Machu Pichu. Ron was as disappointed with the day as I was, but for him it was related to the poor weather which did not show the buildings at their best and the fact that it was so dark when we reached the important sites. I had at least tasted Belgium in the past and could assure him that he really did not miss a great deal other than sunshine.

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