Day 2 in Antwerp
One of the reasons Jona has a basement full of bicycles in various states of repair is that he and some friends are planning on starting a bike tour company in Antwerp. Luckily for us, this meant that he had a few bikes that we could borrow during our stay, and it also meant that a nice free bike tour of the city was in store for us. Our first major destination was a large park just outside the city, with a huge collection of permanent outdoor sculpture. Because it is a long walk from the historic center, few tourists make their way here. We certainly missed it in 2008.
Zoe met up with us there. There was hardly anyone else in the park, and we wandered around looking at all of the public art – everything from Rodin to Ai Wei Wei. The park continues to expand its collection each year, and we visited some of the newest additions. One of the coolest was a water spout (like a broken fire hydrant facing upwards) shooting about 30 feet straight up into the air, surrounded by scaffolding that you could walk up and around. It looked and felt like an MC Escher drawing, as it was hard to figure out who was above whom. The view down the water spout from the very top was surreal. Water billowing up and crashing down, seen from an unusual perspective.
After a good amount of time wandering around, Zoe said goodbye and we continued on our tour. We picked up some weird hamburgers and delicious French fries from a grumpy guy who clearly didn’t want to be working, and brought them to a park with a public swimming pool. This swimming pool wasn’t just any public pool. It was man-made, but it was placed in a natural setting and used plants and other aquatic life to filter the water instead of chlorine, salt or other chemicals. We took a refreshing dip after eating, then lounged a bit in the sun, listening to conversations in Dutch from all different types of people who had gathered at the popular hangout. [Nathan: listening to Dutch feels much more like listening to English than French. I like listening to French, but there was something nice and familiar about the rhythm and cadence of Dutch. Not that I speak it; it’s just closer to English].
After swimming, we ran a few errands on our way back, picking up some medicine for Nathan, who was still fighting a head cold, and getting a copy of the key made so that we could go off on our own. We got back, hung out our clothes, relaxed for a bit, and then went to the grocery store to get supplies. Nathan cooked a delicious meal of lentil and potato dal with coriander yogurt and guferati (green beans with mustard seeds and garlic). We ate with Jona and later his mom came over and we had another nice evening of conversation.
Day 3 in Antwerp
It was still very hot. We slept in, woke up and had a late breakfast, and got some tips from Jona on how to get around and down to the city center on a bike. Today was our day to go off on our own around the city. Getting around Antwerp by bicycle is quite easy in that there are plenty of bike lanes, appropriate traffic signals, and public awareness by drivers and pedestrians. The only tricky part is that as an old city, it is laid out radially which can make for some confusing slow curves and missed turns. We made it down to the city center with just a bit of quarreling between us. Some of that might have been due to the fact that we hadn’t had any coffee, which was very different from our normal routine for the past month. It was already lunch time though, so we opted for a Coke instead, to go along with one of our favorite foods in Antwerp: big bread sandwiches from this little shop in the mall. We are amazed this place still exists, with the same low prices and same sweet couple carefully crafting their sandwiches, not in a rush at all. Delicious. Just don’t go during the lunch time hustle. The guy who makes the food has the same slow pace and precision with each sandwich. Even our Belgian hosts knew about this sandwich shop that takes forever.
We ate outside, then walked around a bit to some of our favorite spots in the city center: the building with all of the flags, the fountain with the boy throwing the giant’s hand across the river, and the strange Gulliver-like statue (see the photo) down by the river near the castle. We then grabbed our bikes and went in search of the pedestrian tunnel that takes you across the river. It was very hard to find if you didn’t know exactly what to look for (we didn’t) so we wasted a lot of time going back and forth until we asked some other cyclists for help. They happened to be looking for the same thing… at least it wasn’t just us. Finally at the entrance, we walked our bicycles to the wooden escalator and headed down into a surprisingly cold tunnel. Yes, you read that correctly – you can take your bicycle down the escalator! At the bottom, we hopped back on and cycled to the other side, then rode the escalators up to find ourselves on the other side of the river.
The main reason we wanted to go to the other side of the river, besides experiencing the escalator, was to get a good view of the city, and take a nap in a park. It sounded easier than it actually was. A lot of what would have been nice riverside walkways were under construction. Areas that weren’t under construction were in the sun, and it was still very hot. Back and forth, back and forth. We finally settled down in a quiet, shady spot only to have a bunch of kids come by and start playing basketball. We got up and kept looking, eventually finding a better spot. We played gin rummy for a bit (one of our favorite time fillers on this trip) and then tried to nap but it was very hot and the tree we were taking shade under kept dropping bits of itself on us. Finally we gave up and headed back towards the city via the tunnel.
Our last stop for the day was a museum located on the north side of the city along the river. We didn’t go there for the museum itself; you can ride the escalators all the way up and get a great view of the city for free. Historic buildings on one side, the river on another, and an apocalyptic looking field of giant metal cranes and other machines stretching into the distance, all part of one of the largest seaports in Europe.
We made our way back towards Jona’s, keeping a close eye on the map. Before going home we wanted to stop by the grocery store and pick up a few bottles of delicious Belgian beer to replenish his supply. Remarkably, the grocery store closes at 8pm, and we were just too late to sneak in. Frustrated and tired, we tried to communicate about what to do next, but everything was getting lost in translation. Even though we were both speaking the same language, it didn’t feel like it. The frustrations had been building up all day. Missing a turn, nowhere to sit but in the sun, where is the escalator thing, where is somewhere nice to chillout, and on and on until the grocery store being closed was the last straw. Angry, we went back to the apartment and found Jona and his mother at the tail end of their dinner, which we shared with them along with some leftover dal. They both left shortly after dinner. We headed up to the roof with some beers and musical instruments, and talked out our frustration, anger and sadness. There might have been some tears and some cursing (there were). We worked it out though with God’s help, and felt ok about only having one big fight after over three weeks of being completely in each other’s space with very little alone time.
Back downstairs, we packed and planned for the next morning’s travel to the conference. We would NOT be almost missing another train!