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.


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.

Last Day in Paris: Dynamo, Macaroons, Riverside Picnic


We said goodbye to our couchsurfing host Fabien and headed back to Julien and Michelle’s apartment, having packed up all of our stuff again (for the third time in Paris). This was our last day in Paris, so we wanted to accomplish a few final things on our wishlist, and hang out with Sheila one more time before leaving the City of Lights.

Multiple friends had recommended that Nathan see the Dynamo exhibition at the Grand Palais, so we made that our first item on the agenda for the day. Billed as “a century of light and motion in art”, the art exhibit was quite fascinating and outside the box. Typically when you think of the “Op Art” movement, you think Victor Vasarely and optical illusions. While there was some of each in this show, there was much more as well. Lots of artwork based on flourescent lights, transparent materials, reflection, and interesting arrangements of 2d objects in 3d space. Lots of pieces mess with or challenge your perception in some way, including via flickering lights; those pieces come with well deserved warnings, as they are hard to look at for more than a few seconds.

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IMG_3670One of our favorite pieces was an installation by Belgian artist Ann Veronica Janssens. It was the only place in the show where you had to get in line to see the art, but it was worth it. The installation was a room filled with mist and colored light. The fog was so dense that you couldn’t see past a few inches in front of you – all you could see was colored light. It felt like being inside of a sunset. It was beautiful and disorienting.

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There were too many pieces to see in the amount of time we had, unfortunately. Nathan could have stayed a lot longer. We hopped on the metro to meet Sheila near Laduree, a restaurant and patisserie famous for their macaroons. Having never tried real, fresh macaroons, we decided to splurge and do it right. Laduree’s macaroons are expensive, but worth it. They were recommended to us by our couchsurfing host in Antwerp, whom we would be meeting tomorrow. We decided to get a few more than the three of us needed so that we would have some to share with him.

Before we sat down to enjoy the macaroons, we had a quick errand to run. Sheila had promised a friend that she would pick up a clothing catalog featuring the friend’s child. A simple task, a few minutes out of our way – but with the three of us, it never is that simple! It was really hot (another theme) and we had Sheila’s hand-drawn map to go on, cross-reference by the iPhone. It really seemed like we walked around for an hour, but it might have only been 15 minutes.

Finally we found the correct address and went inside to the fanciest mall we’d ever been to. There was a man in a dark suit near the door, who asked us what we wanted. Sheila quickly explained in French that we were looking for the children’s clothing store. And after giving us a once-over, the man sent us to the elevator to go up to the third floor.

Once on the third floor, Sheila went off in search of the catalog, leaving us to try and look cool as we browsed tiny children’s clothing that cost a small fortune. A t-shirt: 75 euro. A jumper, on sale: marked down to 65 euro. A nice rain jacket: 250 euro. And very nice sales people that seemed quite eager to find out why we were there.

When Sheila returned empty handed, we were all quite puzzled. It turns out that it’s not quite a normal thing for random adults to ask for a children’s clothing catalog. Something about protecting the rights of children. With our endeavor failed, we went to the toy section before descending back out into the heat. Oh yeah – we forgot to mention that this mall had central AC. Something about designer clothing and high prices being able to pay for such a luxury in Paris.

There was a nice little park nearby and we got coffee to go. We sat down and pulled out the macaroons and savored the magic that is the macaroon. Salted caramel, Argentinian chocolate, raspberry, orange blossom, pistacio – all delightful. Each of us took a bite of each flavor and begrudgingly saved a few. We had a great time just hanging out and talking about life and getting to know Sheila better.

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We’re not sure where the time went, but we needed to get down to the riverside for a picnic and swing dancing (we were just watching the swing dancers). There were loads of people down by the river, and little mini amphitheaters with different dancing groups occupying them. Random freestyle rap battles were occuring further up the hill, and we were in the middle of it all. Classic Paris: sunset on the Seine. So much better being on the shore than on the tour boats that blared by with their strangely bright spotlights. We were in the action, not just looking at it.

IMG_3688It was a great last day in this beautiful city, and it was a perfect way to end our time here. But we weren’t quite ready to go home yet. A group of us decided to try and go find a drink and hang out just a little bit longer. We started out a pretty big group (mostly swing dancers, and us). It was pretty late, so most places were closed, so people kept on leaving. As our group dwindled in size, we finally found a place that had awesome beer on tap (and was open!). It was hard to believe that our time in Paris was done. All we had to do tomorrow was get on the train.

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Le Tour de France

IMG_3626Numerous times throughout the trip research has been an Achilles heel. No matter how much you research something, boots on the ground radically seems to shift your actual experience. We experienced this with Versailles, before the trip with failing to purchase a EurRail pass in time, and so we were determined that this time would be different. We scoured the Internet for advice on seeing the Tour in Paris, checked the metro system’s website to see if certain lines would be shut down, and even the Tour de France’s website for the exact times and streets of the route. We knew we had to get there early, like 4 hours before they would even enter Paris. It was incredibly hot, over 90 degrees (34 centigrade) and the sun was blistering; we were glad we didn’t have to cycle in this weather.

IMG_1769Nathan found a great place to watch the peloton pass, near the Tuileries garden next to the Louvre. We made our way toward the garden and the metro was crazy. The metro website said nothing about closures of lines or stops, but of course the exit we needed to use was closed and we had to go back a few stops and even spend another metro ticket. But it was worth it!

We were meeting up with Lena, a young American traveler who we had met through Austin and Sheila, outside of the l’Orangerie. She brought a friend and the four of us made our way under the trees looking out toward the Seine and the route the peloton would take. It was really hot. Did we mention that? It seemed like there were a million Brits there to celebrate the inevitable victory of Christopher Froome. He had a significant lead and only catastrophe could prevent his claiming of the yellow victor’s jersey he had held for more than half of the Tour.

IMG_3627Gardens tend to mostly be gravel or dirt paths, with roped off grass areas you shouldn’t sit on. We didn’t have any soft grass, only a thin blanket, so Nathan and Lena went off to find chairs in the Tuileries. Many people were bringing chairs into the shade of the few trees, or up to the bridge overlooking the street. We sat there in the heat for hours. We decided not to go to the famed Champs Elysees because it is really hard to see and would have been way too crowded to enjoy. Our spot near l’Orangerie was difficult to get to and so there were few people in this area. If you ever have the opportunity to see the closing of the Tour, we really recommend this spot, assuming they take the same route.

IMG_3643Once the cyclists would get into the center city, they would do 9 loops around where we were at the l’Orangerie and the Champs Élysées, and then the last loop would end with a sprint and a champion.

We ate our picnic food, but it was so hot that we really just wanted to escape the heat. Hours to go and the sun wasn’t setting, nor the heat dissipating. But time did pass and with about half an hour to go Lena reminded us that we had brought the ukulele, but hadn’t played it yet. This is a bad habit of ours. We acquiesced and played some of our favorites like Ingrid Michaelson, Bob Dylan, and we even got a crowd to sing Old Crow Medicine Show’s Wagon Wheel. People clapped and asked for more.

IMG_3630Amy had been worried about being able to see once the cyclists actually got here, as the area near the bridge kept filling up over the course of the afternoon. So after entertaining the crowd with a few songs, with our newly earned social capital we got out of the shade, drug our metal chairs toward the bridge and stood on them, and snuggled up near strangers from around the world for an even better view.

You know they are getting close when you start to hear the helicopters. Everyone stood up, eyes trained on the bend in the road beyond which we couldn’t see. Police, camera cars, sag wagons, and other support vehicles started to come around the bend. Then the small pack of leaders who had pulled out front to set the pace! Then the peloton! Everyone cheered and they zipped by so quickly it was unbelievable. The rest of the support vehicles followed close behind, swerving and shuffling to maintain position in case their guy needed a replacement wheel or bike.

IMG_3649A few laps later, Nathan started to keep track of the lap time on his phone. It was taking them about eight and a half minutes to go all the way around the gardens, all the way up the Champs Elysees to the Arc de Triomphe, and back down. Every time they passed us, the lap time would increase slightly. Until the last two laps. All of a sudden the leaders had entirely changed, the peloton had stretched out, and the lap time had plummeted as they turned on the gas. The final lap past the gardens, there were no longer any leaders and the peloton had stretched out as everyone began the final sprint towards the Champs Élysées and the Arc de Triomphe.

Some of the crowd rushed off to try and catch the final sprint, but we decided to take it easy and avoid the crowds. The heat had taken its toll on us, despite the fact that we had been sitting, not riding pell mell along the streets of Paris. We said goodbye to Lena and her friend and headed back to Fabien’s apartment.

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Back at the apartment, Nathan shared his experimental art app for the Leap Motion Controller with Fabien. The Leap is a new hardware device for your computer that allows you to wave your hands to control your computer. Fabien is a software developer and was very interested in the app. Shameless plug: it’s called Beautiful Chaos, and you can buy it for $1.99 here! The Leap itself costs $79.99 and is available online or at Best Buy.

Fun With New Friends

Before our trip started, Amy had contacted numerous couchsurfing hosts in Paris. So even though we had Julien and Michelle’s place to ourselves, we had made plans to stay with a host, Fabien, and he sounded like such a great guy to hang out with that we packed up all of our stuff and headed back across the right bank to the 11th Arrondissement, not too far from Sheila and Austin’s place. It is always hard to pack everything up after spreading out and having tons of space.

We had plans to meet up with Sheila, Austin, Gus, and Jenn for an early dinner again at Chartier. Before that happened, we wanted to finally make it to Parc des Buttes Chaumont. This was the 4th time we had planned to go. Ideally with such a big and sprawling park, we would have a few hours. Unfortunately, we will have to save major exploring of this park for our next time in Paris. It was about a 1/2 hour walk from Fabien’s and without a convenient metro stop to get us there quickly, we had less than an hour to hang out in the park. We set up shop on top of a steep hill overlooking tons of people enjoying the scene and each other. We didn’t get to walk to the pond with the island, but more south Asians tried to sell us Heineken.


IMG_1679We rode the metro back to Chartier to meet up for dinner at 7 before the crowds of people got there. It was a good thing we did because the line was very long just 30 minutes after we sat down. We ordered a string of traditional French food and shared it at the table. Fois gras, endives and Roquefort, smoked herring, steak tartare, duck confit, and poop sausage. Everything was great except for the poop sausage, poor Gus. He took it like a very polite champ. We were all eating, but he didn’t seem to like his dish. We each took a taste and it really tasted like poop. Gross.

Avoid andouillette!!
Avoid andouillette!!

IMG_1682After dinner, Sheila and Austin left to meet up with some friends and the four of us who remained headed to the Eiffel tower. We couldn’t get enough. We walked a completely different way and sat down in a green space near a giant fountain. The fountain nearly drenched dozens of unsuspecting tourists when it was suddenly turned on full blast.

Jenn and Gus are tons of fun and we had a blast taking pictures, eating another baguette, cheese, and more wine. At 10 the Eiffel tower began to sparkle again and it was glorious. Nathan started experimenting with the camera, using the lights of the Eiffel tower to paint the picture. Our couchsurfing host Fabien is into light painting as well, which is why Nathan was inspired to try his hand at it.

Somehow our hearts always end up shaped like mittens
Somehow our hearts always end up shaped like mittens

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IMG_1753A beautiful evening just couldn’t end, so we went off to find a hang out spot recommended by Fabien called Place de Tokyo where there were people who played with fire. We had to check it out. It was awesome. On one side of the plaza there were a few people playing with fire. A unicyclist, skateboarders, a balance beam. On the other side were about 75 people swing dancing. Many of them we had met at Austin’s surprise party because they are swing dance instructors. Above us was a posh cafe. A lot of Paris is this way, many people in public places enjoying the good life. We were doing the same. We headed off a bit early because tomorrow was the end of the Tour de France and we wanted to be prepared for a monster day.

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