We woke up this morning and Chris made everyone a great breakfast! When he moved to Belgium, he started experimenting with making his own bread to save money, and I was pretty impressed! Not only did we have scrambled eggs on a homemade roll, but he had even made some banana bread!
Belgium actually has 3 official languages. In the northern part also known as Flanders, (where I'm doing all of my traveling) Dutch is the predominant language. The Southern part is traditional Belgium and speaks mostly French. A few parts on the far eastern border speak Germany. There is also Flemish, which is considered to be a dialect of Dutch, but Chris said its pretty different. Although Brussels is technically in the northern Flanders region, they mostly speak French there. Got all that straight? The north and south regions are apparently pretty distinct. Had I known, I might have tried to go to a city in the southern part, since we are right near the border in Leuven.
The plan today was to try to fit both Antwerp and Brussels in to one day, so we didn’t waste any time and took a look at train tickets. A round trip ticket to Antwerp was only 8 Euros (around $10), plus it connected in Brussels, so it made more sense to take the train than to drive. On the way to the train station, we passed the Stella Artois factory. Despite the fact that Stella is positioned as a fancy beer in the US, Chris said that at any bar in Leuven or nearby Brussels, if you ask for a “Pinch” which translates to “little pint,” you get a pint of Stella for just a euro or two. It's the most basic, unappreciated beer here, which was funny. Because InBev bought Anheiser Busch, the HQ for all of AB-InBev (including Bud and BudLight) was here as well.
When we got to the train station, we got stuck behind these girls that were complaining (in Dutch, but Chris knew enough to roughly translate) about having bought the wrong ticket and they were taking forever. We were already cutting it a bit close, and by the time we bought our tickets, we saw our train coming to the station had to get from platform 1 to platform 10 in the next 20 seconds or so before it left. I insisted on paying for the tickets to pay for their tour guiding, especially after they paid for dinner AND put a roof over my head last night. We made a mad dash and somehow got on the train in time.
It was a beautiful day and Antwerp is a beautiful city. Here's the Cathedral of Our Lady, the biggest church in Belgium.
Chris and Kelly had only been here once before and hadn’t been all that impressed, so they undersold it a bit. They ended up realizing that the weather had been miserable last time they were in town and it had affected their perception of the city, so they were actually pleasantly surprised as well.
Here’s Grote Markt, the main square
and the Stadhuis, or Town Hall, which was quite pretty with all of its flags
As we walked around, there was actually quite a few people out already, mostly sitting at cafe's having "breakfast." There seemed to be two choices for breakfast in Belgium. Having beer with your breakfast, or having beer for your breakfast. They're pretty serious. We even saw one pair of old guys having beers for breakfast, one of whom was napping. Chris pointed out what he had noticed across Belgium, that EVERYONE sits on the same side of the table, facing out to the street. Whether they want to be seen or they're people watching themselves, any cafe you walked past had half its chairs empty because nobody wanted to sit facing the cafe. Sort of makes you wonder why they bother with all those extra chairs.
We also saw a ton of boy and girl scouts out and about around town.
Chris said that some ridiculous percentage of young people are in either the girl or boy scouts. I can’t remember exactly, but it was well over 50%.
Again, it was great to have tour guides. Chris had printed out a map because they weren’t as familiar with Antwerp, but they still knew all of the places to go. Outside a castle was this very strange statue, which seemed dirty, though I’m hoping it wasn’t.
We saw a few people taking a funny picture of them looking up and pointing at the guy’s junk like the other people seemed to be doing, so naturally Chris got a funny picture of Kelly doing the same.
Walking around, we stopped inside the Cathedral of Our Lady that we had seen from afar and dominates the skyline of Antwerp
and passed by Steenplein!
They even knew about the Vlaeykensgang, which they called the “secret garden,” which was a pretty little street off a main road that was easy to miss because it looked like someone's private entrance. It was peaceful there and there were plenty of postcard worthy photo ops.
I felt better today because having only ever been here once before (and in the rain), Kelly was taking almost as many pictures as I was.
By now it was around lunch time, and Chris and Kelly had a nice little place in mind that they had been before because it was one of few places they had been able to find that accepted credit cards. It was just off the main square and was a cozy little place. When we got there, however, they noticed that the name (and presumably the ownership) had changed since they had been here a few months ago. We decided to give it a try anyways. I had a Niçoise Salad, Kelly got a Caesar Salad and Chris got a burger. We all ended up being surprised with what we got. On my salad, the Tuna was fully cooked and at first I thought I had ordered the wrong thing, but it ended up tasting great so I was happy.
Kelly was surprised when her caesar salad came with chicken and tomatoes but no croutons and no caesar dressing, and Chris' burger came with an egg on top!
Adding to our amusement, the owner of the restaurant had a heated and extended argument with our waiter. Not in the back room, but literally right in front of us. I tried to be discrete taking a picture.
Every time we thought it was over when the waiter would leave to go serve food or take care of other things, they would start back up again as soon as he came back. Unfortunately, we didn't have a clue what it was all about, but it was entertaining nonetheless. On top of it all, with the new ownership, credit cards were no longer accepted. We had the cash, but had to laugh at the whole experience. In the end, however, the food was pretty good and we were all happy.
At lunch, Kelly had asked about what sights I had uncovered in my research and if there was anything else I wanted to see in Antwerp. I told them about the St. Anna tunnel, which goes under the Scheldt River on the Western border of Antwerp and apparently offers a great panorama view of Antwerp from the other side. They had never heard of it and were interested, so I was excited for them to at least experience something new during the day. They said that every time they come to a city, they find a few new things to explore. I have yet to repeat any European cities and have too many new ones on my list to repeat, but maybe one day I'll know the feeling haha. Anyways, we had to take a never-ending wooden escalator down to get to the St. Anna tunnel itself. Probably the longest escalator I've ever been on. Then we turned the corner and there was one more.
I can't read Dutch, but as far as I can tell, we were 31 meters (over 100 feet) deep.
The tunnel was over half a kilometer (more than 1/3 mile) long. Bikes whizzed past us. If we were in the States, I'm sure you'd have to walk your bike and there would be no rollerblading, scootering, skateboarding, or fun of any kind.
Up until 1950, you had to pay to cross, but now its free. While there were plenty of tourists, it seemed that most of the bikers were commuters who lived on the other (presumably cheaper) side of the river and worked in Antwerp.
It was a pretty neat view, but there wasn't much else going on on the other side of the river. After we crossed back to the other side, we stopped at the flea market at the top of the escalators. I was able to buy a Trappistes Rochefort glass like the one my beer came in last night. There were also several vendors selling records. Bernd and Elke would have loved it.
I was pretty exhausted by this point, and yet we had a whole new city to explore!
When we got to Brussels, it didn't take long to figure out that there was something special going on that day. The streets were especially crowded and people were everywhere. By pure luck, we were lucky to have taken the train, because finding a parking spot would have been a nightmare.
We eventually discovered that it was the Iris Festival (the Iris is the city's mascot flower), a giant street party with concerts and various hippie exhibits set up. For example, there was a Swiss Family Robinson looking treehouse in the middle of one of the plazas that had band members scattered throughout. It's tough to see the band on there, but they were at all different levels which was pretty unique.
It turns out that the whole contraption was built to harness wind and solar power so that it wasn't plugged in to anything. All of the power for the speakers was generated by the thing itself.
Brussels is the capital of the EU (not officially, but its where all of the EU government happenings take place), and is a beautiful and clean city. There are lots of parks, and on this particular day, the festival and the sunshine made for thousands of people out and about and enjoying thousands of lounge chairs scattered throughout the city for the festival.
On the right side of this garden, you can see another hippie exhibit (idk what else to call it) where many of the trees had been guerrilla knitted around and there were long strands of cloth hanging from the trees with info and statistics and such.
There was even one tree with dozens of headphones hanging from it, but everything was in French, so we had no idea what they were protesting.
Most of the things to see in Brussels are museums that I'm not particularly interested in (Art Noveau - whatever that is, Rene Magritte - whoever he is, Musical Instruments - I'm fairly comfortable with my level of knowledge of those) and it was a beautiful sunny day, so I was happy to walk around and enjoy the city. Chris and Kelly took me to see the main sights...the Grand Place or main square
On the left is the Hotel de Ville, which somehow means town hall...
every other August in this square they cover the square with flowers to make beautiful designs, "Le Tapis de Fleurs" or flower carpet - see google image search below...
We also passed the Mont des Arts, where all of the museums are, a relatively high point in a very flat city (and flat country)
At the square outside the Palais Royal was a giant concert and street fair. The band on stage was playing some kind of polka/folk music and EVERYBODY knew the words and was dancing and having a great time. It wasn't the first time Chris and Kelly had heard this style of music...the first time they heard it, they didn't think that there was any way it could be popular until they noticed that everyone seems to know the words to them. It was here that I was introduced to the greatest innovation in festivals since the hot dog stand...the open air urinal.
Gone are the days of waiting in line to use a port-a-potty behind a dozen women. With this urinal, you're in, you're out and you're on your way. I'm going to be really disappointed at the Lilac Festival back in Rochester in a few weeks when I inevitably find that they haven't latched on to this genius invention.
Not to be forgotten, here was the Palais Royal itself.
The king must have been pretty pissed at all that racket out in his front yard. I had seen some beautiful pictures of the inside of the palais, but unfortunately, the royals actually live there full-time, so it's only open for tours two months a year.
Last on our list was to see the Mannequin Pis, or peeing boy. It's a famous fountain in Brussels that has been around since the early 15th century. On the way was Chris and Kelly's favorite belgian waffle stand. They had been building up the waffles ever since I arrived. Chris said it was much different than the breakfast waffles we're used to in the states. It was much thicker and sweeter, and unquestionably a desert. There were dozens of stands on every street, each had a couple dozen waffles out with all different kinds of toppings to entice you: berries, chocolate, whipped cream, nutella, etc.
Interestingly, every stand also advertised that their waffles were just 1 euro, but when we got the bill for a waffle with whipped cream, it was 3.50. Kelly told me about her friend who had ordered one with berries and nutella that had been over 7 euros. So they really take advantage of you on the toppings, but oh well. The waffle was absolutely incredible. I'm not one for candy or sweets, I could give or take chocolate, but those waffles were unbelievable. If Kristine was here, she'd have one for every meal and would never want to leave Belgium. They were that good. Finally a tourist trap that lives up to the hype.
While eating, we had moved out of the way of the hordes of people at the waffle stand and after devouring the waffle, we kept walking down the street for maybe 10 steps Chris asked if I wanted to see the peeing boy. I said sure, and he pointed left. I looked around and there seemed to be a small crowd taking pictures, but I didn't see anything. After a solid couple seconds, I finally noticed the peeing boy. The thing was probably 6 inches tall. It was really funny what a big deal everyone makes out of this tiny little guy.
By now it was around 6:30 and we were all exhausted. We began to head back to the train station, but not without taking in the sights along the way.
Here's more of those ugly little trees that seem to be everywhere in both Germany and Belgium and get cut back every year and end up looking awful without leaves. At least these guys grew the trees into a fence, which was kind of cool and probably looked nice with some greenery.
We also passed by the beautiful cathedral Notre Dame du Sablon, but by then it was too late to go inside.
Boy did it feel nice to finally sit down on that train. They were telling me about all of the Visa troubles they had had trying to get Kelly's visa approved. Apparently Chris had to fly back to the states at one point because a lady at the consulate had told them the wrong forms to fill out and on top of that, the lady had been fired because it wasn't the first time she had done so, which further slowed down the process. After around a 45 minute ride, we got off in Leuven to a huge crowd of activity. Chris explained that the university had many commuters and that most kids don't have classes on Friday, so they party hard on Thursday night, then head home on Friday and come back around this time on Sunday evening. We stopped back at their apartment very briefly. They invited me to stay for dinner, but it was almost 8 and I had a long drive home yet. After carrying around my Trappistes Rochefort glass all day long, I set it down when we got back to their apartment only to hear a loud crack. I was so pissed. Chris had a glass that he had gotten for free and insisted that I take it, which was super nice. He's apparently been planning to go to the store to buy all the glasses from his favorite beers to send home with his parents when they visit in a few weeks. Luckily I asked them where the nearest gas station was, because Chris had to come with me since gas stations were closed and when they're closed, they'll only accept special credit cards that have a chip inside, so he had to pay for my gas and then I wired him the money on PayPal when I got home. I had such a great weekend and was glad that I remembered that they were living in Belgium. They have traveled to all of the cities in Belgium and assured me that I had seen everything that was worth seeing in Belgium, and all in a weekend. I certainly couldn't have done it without experienced tour guides! It was great to reconnect with Chris and to meet Kelly and I think that Kristine would get along well with Kelly too. I told them to make sure they told me when they were back in Rochester so that we could have them over for dinner.
With a picture from the balcony of their brand spanking new apartment complex (they are the very first tenants and the whole rest of the street is made up of other complexes still under construction)
and of their apartment itself, I was off.
As I was leaving Belgium, there was a beautiful sunset...
When I crossed into Germany, my phone could work again so I called Elke to give her an ETA and make sure that they didn't wait up for me because I had a house key and I knew that both had traveling to do the next day. I was also starving, so I grabbed some nuts and cheese at the gas station just over the border. At this point, there was a little over an hour to go. I got back on the autobahn and was glad to be back in the land of no speed limits. I was cruising at probably 140, which at 85-90mph is fast, but I there were plenty of cars going faster. And then I heard a siren. I winced and peaked up at my rear view mirror and sure enough, the cop was right behind me. I assumed that I had missed a sign that had set the unlimited speed limit back to 120kph, but was frustrated wondering why I had been pulled over when there were countless cars zooming past me at 180+. I dutifully pulled over and he barked something out at me over the loudspeaker. Naturally, I had no idea what he was saying, but figured maybe he wanted the car in park, so I did that. Then he barked out something again and I raised my hands to try to convey that I didn't know what he was talking about. Moments later, he showed up in my window and I tried to roll it down, but for whatever reason it wasn't working, so he opened my door and started barking something at me in German. I quizzically said "English?" and crossed my fingers and hoped he'd be able to speak some. He then told me to pull up to the next parking area and that they would follow me there. Once I parked, he told me that he was with German customs and asked for my passport and registration papers. You aren't supposed to keep the registration papers in your car according to Bernd and Elke (because if the car is stolen and someone has your registration papers, they can apparently claim ownership), but Elke had given them to me just days earlier and luckily, I had brought them along in my backpack. I told the cop that they were in my backpack and it was in the trunk, and he let me grab them. When I got out, I noticed that his partner had got out of the police car as well and was shining his flashlight on me.
The first cop was definitely the bad cop and the partner was the good cop. He laughed and asked if we're supposed to pull over immediately in America and I told him yes. Apparently, its SOP in Germany to pull to the next rest area because they have little to no shoulders on the road (and probably because everyone is going so fast too). The bad cop then cut back in and started grilling me on whose car I was driving, where I was coming from, where I was going to, the purpose of my visit, etc. In the tension of the moment, I almost said that I was here for work, but that probably wouldn't have been good for my legality/visa type issues. The bad cop started asking me about having drugs or weapons that I was carrying over the border and started to shine his flashlight around the car and the trunk. I told him that I of course didn't and he asked (but it wasn't really asking, more of an assertion) to search the car. So he told me to wait with his partner while he searched the car. He looked in all the compartments, under all the seats, behind a door panel and tore through all of my clothes in my backpack in the trunk. Once I knew what he was looking for, all of the tension faded and I was kind of amused by the whole situation. So if you've been paying attention from yesterday, you might remember that I told you how nice it was to have no border crossing customs whatsoever within the EU. You might also remember that I told you that the fastest way from Leuven to Windhagen cut through a little sliver of the Netherlands that juts out from its southern border. I asked the good cop if there was anything I had done wrong to get pulled over. He assured me that I hadn't done anything wrong except that I was a young guy driving a BMW and headed the wrong way from the Netherlands. He laughed that they had not expected me to be an American since I had German plates and all. After the bad cop was finished (and clearly disappointed to have not made a drug bust), he reluctantly handed me back my papers and sent me off on my way. It probably didn't hurt that I had google maps printed out on the passenger seat that had directions from Leuven to Windhagen, supporting my story. As I drove away, I laughed realizing that they had never even checked my person. I could have had a stash of Amsterdam's finest in each pocket and they never would have known. It was a good thing that Bernd and Elke weren't hiding anything in their car!
After that little excursion, the rest of the trip was pretty uneventful. I got home after 11 and headed for bed. Bernd is waking up at 4am for the first flight to Berlin tomorrow, and Elke is traveling as well, so I'll be on my own with a few of the secretaries at the office to prepare for Tuesday's SIG presentation, which Bernd and I will discuss when he gets home tomorrow night. All in all, quite the adventurous day!