The trip started 10/12, with everyone getting on a plane.
Most of us arrived after many adventures. Tymme had arrived the day
before and stayed the night with the Welchs. Mark and I had our flight
delayed by not being able to land in Newark. Our small plane had to
circle, and finally land at another airport in Pennsylvania (Allentown)
to wait for an opening at Newark. We sat on the tarmack for some time.
After the plane had refueled and acquired a landing window, we took
off again and were able to land in Newark, one minute before our flight
was to take off.
We ran, quite hard. Mark pulled ahead in order to stop them from closing
the doors (since he runs everyday anyway). I do not run, and when I
arrived, my throat was raw. They had closed the doors with our travel
companions Damon and Karen (who arrived on a different flight) already
on board. We and several irate Belgians argued that we were already
here and that our flight hadnt left yet, and they had really better
open the door and let us on that plane, after having run all that way
(Newark is bloody enormous). The stewardess guarding the door made a
quick phone call and finally nodded and opened the door. We were overjoyed
to join Damon and Karen for the international flight.
The unfortunate consequence of this last-minute boarding is that, alas,
our baggage did not make the trip with us.
Tymme, Jack, and Eric were at the gate to greet us. Apparently the flight
from Chicago had been delayed by four hours.
We stopped briefly at Phileus Fogg to drop off our baggage and to check
in with Karin, the proprietess, since I mentioned that we would be coming
in the morning. She appeared to be surprised and unprepared to greet
us, our first indication that she was maybe not the most organized person
in the world. She also didnt realize that our party was 12, rather
than 10, and 4 people were crammed into a room meant for two for the
first night. (I checked my emails to Karin to be sure I told her 12.
Then we went to the Welchs. They have an expansive three story
home in a nice neighborhood of Brussels, with a vertical garden in the
back (which appears to be the norm). It was very pleasant to wait there
while Jack went to retrieve the others at the airport sometime later.
I took the opportunity to nap on the couch (not having slept at all
on the plane) while Denise took the rest of our party to the nearby
We had breakfast with Karin, and split up to a couple of different destinations.
Accordion Festival in Namur - Dan, Bonnie, Rochell, Rachel, Mark and
I were driven by Jack in the minivan to the small town of Namur for
their 9th Annual Accordian Festival. Hilarity (or rather awkward embarrassment
and persecution) ensued. The announcement we had received from the embassy
newsletter said it was a free event with lunch served at 12, if you
wanted to pay for it separately, and music starting at 2. This was mostly
not the case. The festival was 15 euro, and was given in a banquet hall
(rather than outdoors, as the word festival implied to us).
We hesitated. I thought it was rather expensive, especially for something
that was half over (it had apparently started earlier that morning)
and at which we only planned on spending part of our day. The man at
the door negotiated with Jack in French, and compromised at 10 euro
each. We decided to go in. Everyone was seated at long tables, and it
didnt appear that anyone was eating, although people had glasses
of beer at the table. We chose a table far at the back, out of the way
and began eating our packed lunch. Most everyone was speaking French.
There was a man playing accordion when we arrived, but he only played
a few songs and then left the stage. A woman sang karaoke-style to a
canned music track (with no accordion). The other people would occasionally
get up from the table and dance, then all sit back down.
At one point, the MC got up and spent quite a long time talking between
acts. He said the word picnic several times, then asked
another man to come up. I thought he was introducing a new act, but
this man also spoke for some time, saying picnic several
times in the middle of his speech. We nodded and clapped with everyone
else. We spent a long time waiting for more accordion music. Some time
later, a very angry man came by and grabbed water bottles away from
our group (of the three people who had them).
With the help of Jacks impression of what the speech had been
about, we determined that what they had been saying up on stage was
that they didnt want people to picnic, but that they
should buy the food here, since it was a fundraiser. To be sure we understood,
the second man who came on stage had repeated the announcement in Dutch.
At no point in our visit at the accordion festival had anyone come around
to our table to explain or offer to take our drink or food order. (There
was a small boy who offered to sell us pens, but that hardly qualifies
as the same thing.)
It was quite an awful way to start a vacation in a foreign land, and
it took me the better part of the day to shake the feeling that we really
However, since we frequently traveled with our own lunch most days,
both as a way to save money and to avoid being made lethargic by too
many frittes, it provided endless entertainment in the retelling whenever
we stopped to eat (or picnic). It provided a good story
for Dan later at his open mic night (where he plays accordion), where
he finished the story with, Now, we thought we were typical Americans,
blundering into a conflict we didnt understand in a foreign country
based on faulty intelligence. But we arrived three hours late, haggled
about the price of a charity benefit, and brought our own food and drink
to a restaurant - so they were sure we were Dutch.
We left the Abbey of the Horrid Accordion Playing and explored the rest
of the small town.
This was also the day we discovered you had to pay to use toilets, anywhere
from .30 to .50 euro. There was usually a woman sitting at the door
to the water closet to take your money. Presumably she also
kept the room stocked and clean (that worked better in some locations
There was a church (run by nuns with an association with Notre Dame)
with an exhibit of reliquaries which were quite interesting. Rachel
had written a paper on the subject, which added some nice extra detail.
We also visited a fort on a hill, stopping at the gift shop at the top
for glace (ice cream) and beer.
Unfortunately, I did all this walking in the pair of Danskos I had worn
on the plane, since my luggage had not arrived. By the end of the day,
I had a blister forming at the base of my middle toe on my right foot.
We arrived back at J&Ds house that evening to find Denise
cooking frantically. The rest of us had spent the day exploring the
Grand Place and going to chocolate stores, and had called to let her
know that they were going to be making dinner in her kitchen that evening.
Denise had correctly evaluated the situation and realized that on a
Sunday, they would be unable to find an open grocery, and instead prepared
a roast and salad for the entire group. It was quite welcome and good.
Our luggage arrived! (It was a vast relief, although I am very grateful
for the contributions of essentials by our fellow travelers, particularly
Karen, John, and Rochelle, to keep us going as we waited for our own
The group split again, with several of us taking the train to the small
town of Waterloo, site of the famous battle where the British General
Wellington finally defeated the dreaded Napoleon. There was a house
in town where Wellington had stopped to rest and plan before the battle,
which had been converted into a museum describing the location of the
battle and the different parties involved. It was a multi-nation effort
which finally defeated Napoleon, resulting in tens of thousands dead.
Christine, Mark, and Tymme spent quite some time in this location, reading
every label. It seemed as though they could have spent several hours
more, but there was still the site of the battle to see. We had part
of our lunch in the park across the street from the museum and were
not accosted by anyone. Nor were our water bottles confiscated. It was
After lunch, we took the buses to Lion Hill. This was a large hill which
was mounded up after the battle and an enormous statue of a lion placed
on top to honor the Dutch troops who had perished there. There were
monuments in different places honoring the different groups who had
participated. At this location there was a wax museum (detailing the
uniforms of the different soldiers), the hill itself (which you could
climb and look out to see the different farms at which different parts
of the battle had taken place), a theatre (which had a slide show and
a mechanized diorama detailing the sequence of events of the battles,
and a separate section with a movie showing a re-enactment as seen from
a couple of modern children playing on the mound as if they were
getting glimpses of the past events), and an enormous canvas which wrapped
around and on which was painted the scene as though you were observing
the battle from the very center.
The other group, consisting of Damon, Karen, and Rachel, had done some
preliminary exploration of Brussels, seen some great vistas, found an
aid for Rachel's ankle, ate marvelous seafood at the Cave Cafe, and
some shopping earlier that day.
We met up again that night and had dinner at the Indian place in J&Ds
neighborhood. We treated the Welch family in thanks for their hosting
of the previous evening. The service was very slow, and a bit odd, but
the food was very good.
The entire group went to Brugges by train. This area had been spared
much damage during the war, and an effort had been made to match any
new construction to the architecture of previous eras. The streets were
all cobblestones and the buildings were all beautiful.
We started the day with a boat tour of the area. A canal wended its
way through the city, and this was a good opportunity to get an overview.
We lunched in the central square (packed with tourists!) and tried some
of the local frites.
My feet were beginning to hurt again already, so Rachel (who had slightly
sprained her ankle due to the unusual placement of a platform in their
room) and I opted to meander around the square and go to the Dali exhibit.
Her ankle was hurting, so she didnt want to climb the stairs to
the Belfry and Carillon of Brugges, which several of us climbed all
the way to the top (everyone but Bonnie, Karen, Rachel and myself).
Rachel found a book on the carillon for her brother.
Bonnie and Karen went to the Lace Museum. Karen reports that it was
forty-five minutes of meandering through streets, over canals, down
alleys - they were so elated to find it! And the lace retail shop nearby
was recommended in Rick Steve's book. It yielded several treasures they
purchased, including a lace owl requested by Damon. It only took 15
minutes to get back to our meeting point with a newly marked map from
their dear retailer.
The Dali exhibit was neat. It cost 7 euro to get in, which was a little
off-putting, but we decided to do it. Im glad we did. It was inspiring
and Im thinking of incorporating some of his evocative surrealism
into my own exhibit next August. There were sketches, drawings, and
bronze sculptures. They were all for sale, starting at the low, low
price of 400 euro. Some were quite risqué.
After we met back up, more people got frites and we started running
through the streets to get to locations before they closed. Christine
was actually locked in the Basilica of the Holy Blood. One of the priests
had to let her out. He chastised her for bringing her frites into the
basilica (bad Christine!). Then we hastened to the Church of Our Lady
where Michelangelos Mother and Child was housed. It was a beautiful
place to sit while the rest of the crew explored (feet hurting!). I
am always moved by the beautiful old churches with their extraordinary
spaces and sculptures and works of art. I am also conflicted. Its
so much power and wealth and I wonder if such a display is helpful or
harmful to the transmission of the message. They kicked us out, too
(or rather, began to close up around us and turn out lights). The Groeninge
Museum was around the corner which John wanted to see because they had
an Hieronymous Bosch exhibit, but they closed right at 4 and he was
The sun started to set and we sat at Lilys Bistro/Frituur before
walking back to the train station for some beer and waffles. Detouring
through the park, we passed a group of people whooping and laughing
and dumping buckets over each others heads and tying themselves
to trees. There was a heavy smell of marijuana wafting from them. It
was surprising in Belgium. I didnt think we were going to see
that sort of thing until we went to Amsterdam.
Damon made dinner that night, pasta with mushrooms and zucchini. He
was disappointed because there was so much pasta that the sauce and
vegetables were diluted. Still, it was good. There was no dressing and
no vinegar, so at Damons suggestion, I put together a dressing
for the salad with a yogurt base. It worked out surprisingly well.
I stayed home all day with my bad feet. The blister had caused me to
limp the previous day. Now the blister was not only worse, but my right
ankle felt badly sprained by my walking on it funny. I had intended
to go to the market nearby for tomorrows breakfast, but it rained
all day, and my feet still hurt. Wincing up and down the stairs to the
bathroom was really enough for me. The quiet was palliative.
Damon, Tymme, Eric and Dan had been moved temporarily into one of the
very nice rooms on the floor below mine. The very nice part was the
fully enclosed bathroom with a toilet, shower, and very large tub. I
soaked in the enormous tub for at least an hour, gazing out the window
over the back yards of our neighbors. The yards were distinctly alien.
They were blocked off completely one from the other, not with a shoddy
chain link, but with solid stone walls that are hundreds of years old.
The tops of the walls were lined with the terra cotta tiles seen also
on many of the roofs of buildings. The gardens were profusions of flowers
and green and hanging laundry, beautiful and mysterious in the heavy
The whole crew went to the daVinci Exhibit and the Ugliest Basilica
John reports that he and Rochelle went to see a Brughel (Pieter Brughel
the Elder) that John wanted to see, "The Fall of Icarus,"
and ended up entranced by "The Fall of the Rebellious Angels."
They also found a Bosch and some Ensors (but not, alas, "Christ's
Entry into Brussels"). They wanted to see the environmental exhibit
at BOZAR, but didn't (no time).
Everyone else went to the instrument museum. There are a lot of pictures
of this museum. People had a great time there and talked about going
Karen, Bonnie, and Damon came home early. Damon and Bonnie took naps,
but Karin took Karen to a spa nearby. Karen offered to treat me to the
spa. It was tempting, but I only finally felt like standing on my feet
at all. Leaving the house, even being driven, just sounded painful.
Christine made pumpkin risotto that night. Karin and her daughter joined
us for dinner. Karin suggested nutmeg in the risotto and it was excellent.
I made another yogurt-based salad dressing, this time with one of the
beers Mark was sampling out as dinner was being made.
Again there was chocolate after dinner. This was our ritual during this
vacation, to gather around the table to plan the next day, drinking
tea (or Erics duty free whiskey) and sampling different chocolates
cut messily into tiny pieces.
We got up at the crack of dawn to take the train to Amsterdam. Once
we finally got the crew out the front door, there was some confusion
about who had the train tickets (which had been purchased on Monday).
I originally had them, but had placed them on a table in our room under
the package of underwear John had lent Mark before our luggage came.
Mark had returned the package and accidentally grabbed up the tickets
with them. We had really discovered this last night when someone was
looking for them to see what time we needed to catch the train. But
this morning we had to track them down again. Someone realized they
had seen them last and went back in to retrieve them. I wrote a verse
of a song about it, since it seemed typical Nerky-herding-cats confusion:
Oh to Amsterdam well go,
Have you got the tickets? No!
They were taken from my care,
Along with Johns underwear.
Oh Whos got the train tickets now?
Whos got the train tickets now?
In the ideal, finished version, there would be a verse for each person
about why they dont have the tickets anymore.
I should have slept on the train, but instead, Mark, Rachel, Tymme and
I played a card game called Bohnanza. We were all bean farmers. There
was some difficulty since all the rules were in German. I got to see
the sun rise over the countryside, which looked very much like Indiana,
except for the occasional windmill (mostly of modern design).
Melissa and Alex joined us at the train station, where we all bought
a 48 hour I, Amsterdam pass which allowed us to ride transit
and get into museums either for free or with a serious discount.
The first place we used it was at the Hidden Cathedral, a Catholic cathedral
built into the attic of a wealthy mans home in a period when it
wasnt allowed to practice Catholicism openly. Damon had been talking
about it for some time, saying how it was very Dutch to hide
the cathedral by building it into an attic, but then to give it a pipe
organ and a full set of church bells which were rung regularly. The
neighbors apparently didnt mind. From Damons description,
I thought it must be quite small, but it was huge! A full-sized small
There was an exhibit going on which honored the spiritual virgins
who committed their lives to the running of the church. They werent
exactly nuns. They took their vows a year at a time and then were allowed
to go back to their regular lives and marry. The exhibit introduced
works by current women artists, installed throughout the building, which
wandered through priest quarters, chapel, lofts, bathrooms, the kitchen.
After the church in the attic, Alex, Melissa, Tymme, Mark and I went
to a nearby café while everyone else went to Anne Frank house.
We met up again and went to the Pancake Place to have dinner with Taco
and Anya, friends of Damons when he was living here.
Taco is a physicist, and Anya works with in the educational system with
handicapped children. They explained to us that this wasnt a novelty
restaurant they really do regularly have pancakes for dinner
here, and think its odd to have them for breakfast. The menu reads
like pizza toppings. We went back to their apartment for drinks and
chocolate afterward and had a very nice time. The Moms took a cab back
to the sloop. Taco walked the rest of us back to Central Station, where
Rachel, Mark and I caught the bus, and everyone else walked the rest
of the way.
Oh. But not before Taco kissed me.
Well, really then he kissed everybody. Three times.
He says its tradition
(A couple of the guys have requested a disclaimer be inserted here.
The only man Taco kissed was Damon. He spared the rest.)
The Hartstocht was docked for the winter, but was still beautiful and
romantic with all its sails furled. Each cabin had two bunks and a private
bathroom! The boat swayed slightly, but it was calming more than nauseating.
There were a couple of bumps in the night when the engines came on and
we bumped against the dock, but it didnt keep me awake for long.
In the morning we had a really fantastic brunch. The sloop is highly
recommended, although a bit more expensive than our B&B in Brussels.
(Also, they only took cash, so we had to borrow euros from Karen.)
Rochelle abandoned us at the Central Station and rented a bicycle. The
Dutch were nuts for their bicycles and had dedicated lanes everywhere.
Unfortunately for us, it was difficult for us to determine where the
pedestrian area was (it was all cobblestone with no curbs), and the
bicyclists will run you down without a second thought. There really
is no question who has the right of way. I thought it was very brave
of Rochelle to drive off like that on her own amongst all of the aggressive
native riders. It sounds like she had a good time, although being unfamiliar
with the traffic patterns was a little nerve-wracking. She drove all
through the city and visited the Rijks Museum and the Jewish Historical
Eric also struck out on his own that day, visiting the Rijks Museum
(for the van Gogh), the Amsterdam Heritage Museum, Rembrandt House,
and GSAN at the diamond center.
For the rest of us, the morning was spent at the Dutch Resistance Museum.
It was very affecting, and I found my eyes tearing at the quotes of
people rejoicing at the end of the war (even before getting to the main
exhibit where they talked about the horrors). My favorite story was
about a woman who spoke out against the Germans early in the war and
was imprisoned. When asked to do manual labor for her captors, like
darning their socks, she instead sewed them shut, claiming not to understand
what they wanted. Dan reports that he also almost cried at that exhibit,
after reading about the Jewish orphan boy who was "adopted"
by German soldiers and cared for for a couple of months before they
had to ship him off to the gas chamber. Highlights for him included
the accordion and fake maternity corset used to smuggle things.
After the Dutch Resistance Museum, we had lunch at the Botanical Museum.
There were enormous moths and glass-winged butterflies, and many, many
weird and wonderful carnivorous plants. Alex kept surreptitiously harvesting
seeds and fruits to plant on his farm back in Ireland.
People went their separate ways after that. Karen, Bonnie, and Damon
headed out to the Cat Museum, but it apparently closed at 2 and they
just missed it. We went to the flower market and bought bulbs for Mom
(which was Rachels idea, but a good one). There was an outdoor
exhibit called Planet Ocean by Dos Winkel with extraordinary close-ups
of aquatic life accompanied by stories about pollution and potential
oceanic resources for product development.
Dan reports that he, Christine and Tymme also tried the cat museum after
touring the botanical garden after lunch (having spent too much time
in the resistance museum to tour them before lunch), but they got there
even later than the moms and were cruelly disappointed.
Amsterdam is a beautiful place to walk through. We tended to avoid the
red light district (even though all the vagrants were trying to tell
us where it was), although we did walk through a close alley as a shortcut
and could see into basement windows where scantily-clad women were looking
up at us and waving invitingly.
Damon helpfully explained that coffeeshops were where you
went to get marijuana and smoke up. Cafes were where you
went to get coffee. This warning was much appreciated.
We snagged some falafel and gyros and met up at the train station to
get home. Alex and Melissa made it just in time, giving us a bit of
a fright. Everyone had their own train tickets on them, but they were
the only ones who hadnt been to Phileus Fogg yet and didnt
know how to find it.
This was our last full day in Brussels.
Melissa had been talking about these plasters that I should
try for my blisters (it was plural by now). When Mark, Christine, Tymme,
Alex, and Melissa went out for an early morning walk, they found me
some, so I got to wear them for the rest of the day. They arent
exactly band aids. Theyre more like wax, with an adhesive side
that you apply directly to your skin. It molds to you as it deforms
slightly with body heat. There are no active ingredients listed, but
man these things work! My foot didnt hurt at all. I really wish
I had those things earlier in the trip. They dont sell anything
like them in the states, which
really makes me wonder about those
Everyone wandered around in various groups the rest of the day, buying
last-minute chocolate to take home. There was an open air market where
Christine found lizard clothes. We went to the Grand Place and met up
with Denise and the kids. Jacks meeting went late, so he showed
up a little later after we had found an Italian place that could accommodate
a large portion of us. I sat next to Lara and we drew an ice-skating
rink with butterflies and lava lamps and tiny individual rinks for different
We had dinner at Jack and Denises that night. People played board
games. Damon and Dan had bought a torte from Marcolinis for Christines
birthday which was the next week. Everyone wound down and planned their
transportation to the airport the next morning.
Damon, Karen, Mark and I left first, although everyone was up when we
left, crammed into the hallway to see us off, looking very much like
Time to go home.