[Nathan: At some point in the morning as we were getting things packed up, I asked what time it was. We had been going at a leisurely pace, but time had gotten away from us so we picked up the pace. We managed to leave the apartment at about the time we had planned. I thought we had built in enough leeway to get from the apartment, to the metro, to Gare du Nord, where we would pick up our tickets and ride the train to Antwerp. Not so. When we got to the train station, we had barely enough time, even if everything went perfectly smoothly.
And of course, it didn’t go smoothly. I had hoped that there would be a special (and short) line where we could pick up our tickets that we had already paid for online. This mystery line did exist, but it took a few wrong turns and some time wasted waiting in the wrong lines to get there. All the while our window of opportunity was closing. We finally made it to the person who could actually help us. She asked us incredulously when she saw the time our train was leaving, “is the train master holding the train for you?” The answer was no. She said, “Run!” and I did, while Amy stayed with her to get the tickets. I ran over to the train master, who was waiting by the rope that had been pulled over the entrance to the platform. I was explaining our situation and frantically asking if there was any way they could let us through. “My wife will be here any second with the tickets.” I wasn’t hoping for much but I said “please?” He said, “It is not a matter of please; it is forbidden! The train leaves on time; if it doesn’t, it causes problems down the line.”
At this point I had given up and headed back to Amy to see if we could exchange our tickets (for a hefty fee). But she was running towards me. I turned back around and we went and begged again. He radioed the other guy waiting at the last open door on the train. I imagined him saying, “Can you let these stupid Americans in?” Apparently the answer was yes, so he raised the rope and waved us on. The guy at the door urged us to run faster, though we were already running as fast as we could with heavy backpacks on. All in a fluster, we had trouble pulling out the right tickets, so he said, “Just get on the train.” As soon as we got on, the door shut and the train started moving! Thankful, and at the same time embarrassed to be “those people,” we made our way to our seats with the help of some of the crew. I sat in shock for a bit, thinking, “That was way more stressful than it should have been!”]
We made it to Antwerp mostly in one piece and feeling like it was really incredible that we were actually here. When we were here in 2008 the central train station was under incredible renovation, but it has since been completed and it is stunning. Also the last time we arrived, we had hopped on a tram to go to our hostel and we went the wrong way and just did a big loop around the entire city. So what should have been 5 minutes turned into 45. But we love Antwerp.
We got off the train and headed out of the beautifully restored station and walked its entire length to the street our couchsurfing host, Jona, lived on. We were happy not to have to brave the tram this time. Jona lives in an office building just behind the station. We called him to come down and get us and then ascended the 4 flights of stairs to his apartment. It turns out that he really does live in an abandoned office building that has been converted to temporary apartments. Temporary has a strange way of being 4 years in this case. What happens is that a company will come in and buy the building and it is more expensive to pay the government fees for an abandoned building, so they house people here for cheap rent and lots of space. There are down sides for the residents: 1) they really don’t have any security that this temporary arrangement will become more permanent, 2) the shower is down the hall and is shared by the people who live on your floor, 3) so is the kitchen, 4) management doesn’t care because it really doesn’t exist, so stuff just keeps on deteriorating. The upside? 1) tons of space, we’re talking thousands of square feet, 2) since management doesn’t care, you can get away with a lot, like a glorious rooftop kiddie pool, Amy would hold derby practice there if we lived here, or a bike shop in the basement, 3) cheap rent.
After this crazy day getting to Antwerp, we chilled out for the afternoon. After a nice nap, we went to a bar Jona recommended and drank delicious Belgian beer and had some not so nice vegetarian and microwaved bitterballen (generally a fried ball of goodness). It was such a cool place, in a square with a neighborhood playground in the middle and pubs and eateries surrounding the playground. People just hangout and drink and eat and played with their kids. Many people ride up on bikes. Oh it was wonderful. We went back home for a delightful vegan dinner that Jona was making for us and his friend Zöe, who had just returned from living abroad for a number of years. The food was delicious and the conversation was engaging. After dinner Jona led us up to the roof, via a very narrow ladder. The view was quite beautiful, there was a nice breeze, and there were multiple seating areas that the residents had set up. We hung out up there for a bit and then came back down. Jona and Zoe went off to a movie, while we stayed behind, cleaned up a bit, and crashed.