My longish musings (in multiple parts) on my trip to Belgium — blog updated as things happen (with a slight time deal of course)…
Part I: Austin, Atlanta, Brussels & Mechelen
For the first time since I have gotten to the US, I took a flight out of Austin at an earthly hour. The flight from Austin to Atlanta was at a comfortable 1 PM, and I had enough time to catch a good night’s rest, before I began my third trip to Europe in 4 years!
The ride to the airport was smooth, however, I realized that women have the power to open up even the most taciturn and silent beings of them all. Case in point: my shuttle driver; who did not open his mouth till he picked up this chick (somewhat attractive) from downtown Austin. After that, he was a whole new person — continuing to talk to me even after dropping her off! Anyway, I made my way through security and the rolls of food I had carried (I cannot bear to eat any more of the fatty tasteless food that they serve in airports) forced the security guy to open up my baggage and check it. He asked me if I was carrying any weapons, and I laughed before replying ‘no’, to which his response was that I’d not believe the stuff people brought through airport security. Funny and a bit disconcerting.
As I waited for the flight to come in — having checked in waaaay before my general right-on-the-money time — one of the Delta employees announced that since they had changed their flight, we’d have to be reissued new boarding passes. I walked up to the desk and before me was a seemingly mature lady, asking the attendant if the luggage would be transferred to the new flight. Given that the scheduled departure was not for another 2 hours, and that the plane had not even landed yet, her question made me wonder about the foolish nature of human query.
The plane ride was uneventful and as luck would have it, I got the middle seat in the center set of rows. I slept through a sizable duration of the flight, so it was all ok. Something else that I noticed was that the person next to me was actually the chair of the conference that I was going to attend — in fact she was the chair of my session! I did not know her personally, so I refrained from small talk (also I was not too sure till later), only to hear her chat away to he son (presumably) about school, homework, food for the week, orange juice (spatial location in the house) and caprisun (as a reward for doing homework maybe) and see her devour a Nicholas Sparks romance novel. We are all human after all — even if we are full professors at leading universities!
I got off at the Brussels airport, stood in a Q — which was not really a Q, for there was no Q indicator, people just sort of lined up. I did not stand in line for long and was rushed through customs. Picking up my large checked in bag, I made my way to the bus stop and waited for the bust to take me to Mechelen. As I sat there, I could not help but notice the judgmental looks of condescension that men in neatly pressed suits and women in tight skirts and long black stockings were giving me. Oh, did I mention that I was wearing a pair of worn-out shorts and flip-flops? My typical Austin attire did not suit the tastes of the more classier Europeans apparently, neither was it advisable at around 12 degrees C. I did have a neat jacket on, and the wind was silent, so over all — not so bad.
The bus passed through quaint towns on the way to Mechelen, faintly kissing Brussels on its way there. The houses were cozy little brick havens, separated by well-tended-to lush-green gardens dotted with flowers of every color imaginable. I smiled to myself as the large monstrous bus made its way through the diminutive cobbled streets of the Belgium countryside — a sight that made me remember what I found so fascinating about Europe; after all, it had been over two years!
Having reached the Mechelen station, it was an easy short walk to the Hotel and the employee at the desk (Nuria, adopted, Peruvian, does not speak Spanish, but wants to learn) was more than helpful with locations and places to see, and even let me check in at 10 AM, even though the actual check in time was only 2 PM! Reminded me of the less-than-courteous reception my parents and I got when we were in Barcelona a couple of years back (3 PM means 3 PM sir, not a minute early!). I quickly changed and managed to get out of my room by 11, and Nuria had for me a list of things to do in Mechelen, which I pocketed before walking out into the pleasant day (and yes, I changed into full pants now — people were very happy; I faintly remember a tear of joy being shed for my maturity).
The cobble-stone streets which wind over small rivulets, were dotted with the European Audis and BMWs, leaving only the exact amount of space it would take a car to pass through, bore my faint trod with the ease of habit, just as the people took in the wonderfully picturesque surroundings with the neglect that only comes out of repetition. Just like a child in a candy shop, I gleefully snorted in the atmosphere, making most of my early arrival, as I hopped-skipped-and-jumped past small cafes where people drank infinitesimally small quantities of coke and smoked cigarettes like there was no tomorrow. I reached the town center — Grokt Markt — the town market or square which housed the major attraction in Mechelen – The Rombus Cathedral.
Since the Cathedral was not to open until 1 PM (just like the other chapels and churches in the neighborhood that I was scheduled to visit), I walked up north to a set of streets that housed homes which were extremely old and were on the list of the UNESCO heritage sites. The constricting alleyways and the wall-sharing nature of the houses only made me happier, as I snapped away to glory, passing through streets with names a mile long (seriously, you’d need more than two breaths to pronounce the whole damn thing!). I noticed a bus drive by, headed to — guess where? — M. Gandhi Straat — yup, there is apparently a Mahatma Gandhi street in Mechelen, Belgium! Made my day that!
I managed to grab a disappointing lunch at a small bakery/cafe near Grokt Mart before making my way through the churches and cathedrals that Nuria had recommended I see. I have always enjoyed the peacefully tall structures of European churches and the ones in Mechelen fell right into that pot — especially due to the lack of touristy crowds. The only other tourists that I came across were Dutch! I am guessing the glitzier towns of Brussels and Bruges poach away the non-Dutch tourists. While the other churches were nothing to write home about, the Romus Cathedral was beautiful and I managed to climb over 500 steps to reach the top of the tower, from which I was afforded a 360-degree panoramic view of Mechelen. Thankfully the weather cooperated and it did not rain, as I surveyed the town through the ramparts of the church tower.
After about 3.30 in the afternoon, I started to feel the journey tell on my body and I got back to the hotel for a nap, getting up for dinner at around 7 PM. I was scheduled to go to an Italian place, but that shop wouldn’t open the doors for me (really! it was locked and I think probably closed — no I could not see through the windows), so I scuttled into a Turkish place, where I had some of the best Falafel and a Babaghanoush-type dish, which I topped off with a wonderful Baklava and strong Turkish coffee. I was in heaven and in the same happy stupor headed back to my hotel to call it a day.
I got the opportunity to visit the inside of the erstwhile place of residence of the archbishop of Mechelen, which was originally constructed to be the palace of justice (moved later to Brussels), as a part of the group from the conference and I was pretty impressed with the history that the tour guide narrated. While the rooms and the sole tapestry was nothing out-of-the-world — the tapestry was supposedly a mish-mash of stuff from a series of tapestries that now hand in Spain, which I think I saw a couple of years back — it was fun to take a closer look at the history of the Belge. Fancy pre-dinner appetizers — much of which I could not eat — and supposedly excellent Belgian beer — which I could not drink, yes, orange juice it was — rounded off the day, neatly overshadowing the pretty pedestrian sandwich (cheese, bread, one tomato slice) that I had had for lunch. The setting was lovely and I managed to get some nice pizza in me (some veggies!) at a place just behind the cathedral that I had earmarked from the previous day, and I was more than a little moved by the richness of Europe and its culture. Oh, and I remembered by I hated Europe as well — their utter lack of regard for water! Water here is shit expensive and one does not have access to “regular” water — only mineral. At the conference, once the refreshment house was over, we had to search heaven and high water to find a glass of water (yes, I get the irony) and somehow managed to squeeze out one tiny glass that would not even suffice to hold the tears that I shed over dead unicorns. Man, what is it with Europeans and water — do they not ever get thirsty?
Better Resolution Pix: