Two More Days Exploring Antwerp

Day 2 in Antwerp

IMG_1901One 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.

IMG_1902Zoe 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.

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Ai Wei Wei “Bridge without a name” made of recycled wood from the park. The pieces that you stand on are essentially extrusions of small parts of the geographic outline of China.

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

IMG_1918It 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.

IMG_1919We 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.

IMG_3718The 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.

IMG_1924Our 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.

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Back downstairs, we packed and planned for the next morning’s travel to the conference. We would NOT be almost missing another train!

The Best Laid Plans

IMG_1884[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!”]

IMG_1889We 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.

IMG_1890We 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.

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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.