Belgium & Amsterdam
fall '07

10/12 Friday
The trip started 10/12, with everyone getting on a plane.

10/13 Saturday
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 hadn’t 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 didn’t 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. I had.)
Then we went to the Welch’s. 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 market.

10/14 Sunday
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 didn’t 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 Jack’s impression of what the speech had been about, we determined that what they had been saying up on stage was that they didn’t 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 weren’t welcome.
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 didn’t 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 than others).
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&D’s 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 belongings.)

10/15 Monday
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 reassuring.
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&D’s 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.

10/16 Tuesday
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 didn’t 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. I’m glad we did. It was inspiring and I’m 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 Michelangelo’s 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. It’s 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 too late.
The sun started to set and we sat at Lily’s 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 didn’t 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 Damon’s 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 tomorrow’s 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 gray light.
The whole crew went to the daVinci Exhibit and the Ugliest Basilica in Brussels.
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 back again.
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 Eric’s duty free whiskey) and sampling different chocolates cut messily into tiny pieces.

10/18 Thursday
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 we’ll go,
Have you got the tickets? No!
They were taken from my care,
Along with John’s underwear.
Oh Who’s got the train tickets now?
Who’s got the train tickets now?
In the ideal, finished version, there would be a verse for each person about why they don’t 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 man’s home in a period when it wasn’t 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 didn’t mind. From Damon’s description, I thought it must be quite small, but it was huge! A full-sized small town church.
There was an exhibit going on which honored the ‘spiritual virgins’ who committed their lives to the running of the church. They weren’t 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 Damon’s 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 wasn’t a novelty restaurant – they really do regularly have pancakes for dinner here, and think it’s 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 it’s 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 didn’t keep me awake for long.

10/19 Friday
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 Museum.
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 Rachel’s 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 hadn’t been to Phileus Fogg yet and didn’t know how to find it.

10/20 Saturday
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 aren’t exactly band aids. They’re 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 didn’t hurt at all. I really wish I had those things earlier in the trip. They don’t sell anything like them in the states, which… really makes me wonder about those active ingredients…
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. Jack’s 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 people.
We had dinner at Jack and Denise’s that night. People played board games. Damon and Dan had bought a torte from Marcolini’s for Christine’s birthday which was the next week. Everyone wound down and planned their transportation to the airport the next morning.

10/21 Sunday
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 family.
Time to go home.