Tuesday, June 25, 2013

A legend (and friend) is gone

I've learned just moments ago that Eric Haws, a legendary motorcycle traveler and our very dear friend, passed away on May 4, 2013 due to cancer.

Eric held a Guinness Book of World Records certificate for being the first person to cross Russia on a motorcycle - his wife Gail was with him. He and Gail had motorcycles in different parts of the world so they could ride somewhere, anywhere, whenever they wanted, without having to ship their motorcycle from the USA. My husband met Eric and Gail in Greece in 2006. Stefan was on his first motorcycle tour of Eastern Europe. They stopped at the same restaurant he did, and invited him to spend the day with him touring one of Greece's historic churches. When Stefan came back to our home in Germany, he said he'd met a really nice, funky American couple on a motorcycle that were living the life we wanted to live, and that he had a standing invitation to visit them - that they had been quite insistent on that point.
In 2009, we moved to the Portland area, and I was so happy to learn Eric and Gail lived not far from us, and I'd get to meet them at last.

We loved the Burning Moto Man rallies, as well as going to Westfir a few times just to hang out in Eric and Gail's unbelievably beautiful "estate". We were honored when he asked us to present at a rally, and were looking forward to doing so again at some point.

Our Host, Eric

Eric was oh-so-fond of his German Polizei jacket. Eric was very fond of most things, actually. That's what made him such a delight.

Eric was so supportive when I started riding my own bike - I appreciated that support so much, because being around so many experienced world motorcycle travelers can really be intimidating. When I got severely criticized by a family member for making travel a priority in my life instead of whatever else it was I was supposed to be making a priority, I thought of Eric and Gail, of the many adventures they've had, the beautiful places they've seen, the incredible people they've met, the lovely life they have, and thought, I think my priorities are just fine.

Burning Moto Man 2011 - 429

I also loved sending world motorcycle travelers their way. I'd give a person the address and say, "You just show up. Tell him we sent you." And they would end up staying with them for two or three days and write me and say, "These people are unbelievable!"

Yes, absolutely.


What have we lost? We've lost a legend. We've lost a friend. We've lost an inspiration.

When Eric was diagnosed with cancer and in Portland for treatment, we were closing on our first home and in the middle of moving. He was back home before we had a chance to visit, so we made plans to visit in April, then in May, then in July. I'll always feel guilty - even shame - for not making visiting Eric a priority, to let him know just how much we loved him. I hope he knew.

Do a search on Eric and Gail Haws, no quotes, on Google to see them mentioned again and again in blogs by various adventure motorcycle travelers.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Antwerp, Lier, & Goodbye, Belgium

A reminder that, in addition to tweeting about my travels (as always), I am also posting travel updates to my Facebook page as well.

Random thought of the day: if you had told me when I was in high school that, some day, Harrison Ford would marry someone I worked with, I would have said, "No more pot for you, dude, because you are STONED."


I sometimes bring a DVD or two on a business trip, just in case there is downtime when I don't want to read, when there might not be anything on TV, and I'm ready for a break from socializing with work colleagues. And that kind of downtime has NEVER happened. So I didn't bring any DVDs this trip both because I never have needed them and because I was going to be in Barcelona. There was no doubt I'd be in Barcelona. It never dawned on me I wouldn't be in Barcelona. Drinking wine with a dear friend and her mother. Gabbing. Oh, I need a gab session BADLY. I haven't had one in years. No kidding - years. June 2009, to be precise.

I thought about buying some here, but never found a DVD store with bargain DVDs.

I can't believe that not only did Barcelona fall through, but that Bonn AND London fell through - the latter because I couldn't get a train ticket back at an affordable price and my hotel was waffling on letting me back out of a night.

Also, all those saying travel guidebooks aren't needed now, that everything you need is on the Internet? Those folks are delusional. Internet access has been SO bad on this trip, if it's been available at all. If I hadn't brought my Lonely Planet guidebook for Belgium, I would have been even worse off than I have been - it's the only way I've known what my options were. My only complaint about the book - it says Antwerp is an under-rated city. Either that's a misprint and should say that it's OVER rated, or in the 12 years since it was published, Antwerp has radically changed.

Stefan posted to Facebook and asked three friends from Belgium for tips on things to do in Antwerp. The only response was, "It's a trap!" And, indeed, it's not anything like I thought it would be. I wasn't expecting Bruge, but I was expecting something better than Bonn, in terms of being picturesque and having things to see.

Friday, I went to the Antwerp Zoo. I haven't been to a zoo since the late 1990s, when I went to the National Zoo in Washington, DC, and on that visit, I actually had a decent time. I have mixed feelings about zoos. Even the "nicest" zoos are animal prisons, with animals often denied family, in a fraction of the space they would have in the wild, and subjected to so much noise from visitors that it can cause horrific stress. On the other hand, zoos have educated millions of people about endangered species and loss of habitat, leading to the political will and funding to promote all sorts of conversation efforts and campaigns (like anti-Ivory campaigns) that would never have happened, or been as successful, otherwise, and animals are often remarkably healthy - even healthier than in the wild. And many have breeding programs that are our last hope for some species.

The Anwerp Zoo is a mixed bag. It's one of the oldest zoos in the world, but is quite modern - no enclosure made me cringe. I wish they'd give up on some animal exhibits so they could make other exhibits even bigger. Instead of having zebras, why not give the Gorillas even more room? Get rid of the bird exhibits that people walk by without even looking, and give the giraffes more room. More sound proofing - heck, make the glass one way, so animals CAN'T see us. And take those overly-vigilant guards from Ruben's museum house and put them in the zoo, to stop people from screaming at the animals, tapping on glass, etc. In fact, don't let anyone in the zoo without being forced to sign a pledge not to scream.

Yes, I liked the animals far, far more than the people. The elephants had a nice courtyard to walk, even run, around in, and I swear the one that was using his or her trunk to play with the erect penis of the other elephant was doing it to get the crowd to giggle. Hated that one of them had chain "bracelets" around two feet. Those bracelets weren't chained to anything - he/she had complete freedom. But he's chained up to something sometimes (probably at night, in his cage), which breaks my heart. He kept trying to get the bracelets off, rubbing them against different rocks and what not. The chimpanzees were fascinating - they went berserk when they saw a zoo keeper entering the building next door, knowing he was going to be feeding them. The gorillas were spell-binding - it's the first time I've seen the silver back in the same enclosure with the other gorillas, and I sat for a while, watching the other gorillas paying their respects in different ways. The American porcupines were adorable, smelling the keeper that was cleaning their enclosure and letting her pet them. My favorite, as always, were the elephants and the gorillas. I could watch either for hours. People would just walk by the large enclosures with a side glance, but I'd sit there or stand there and see all sorts of fun things - mostly interactions between family members I found amusing.

The zoo also needs WAY more information, telling visitors about the animals. What they have is tiny and obscure.

I then walked around the train station, looking for a train ticket office - and never found it (it's right in the front of the station, turns out - but if you never go to that part of the station, you never see it). I was still hoping to somehow get to London. I came back to the hotel and took my laptop to the breakfast room, where the Internet was zippy most of the time. I tried to find an affordable ticket online to and from London on the train. Getting to London was no problem - but a return ticket on Sunday was hard to come by. Had I started looking, say, Wednesday evening, this could have worked, and I'd now be hanging out with at least one friend, maybe two.

I did some work, answering some emails, writing and posting two blogs for my professional life (yes, TWO), and programming some tweets to go out later and on Monday. It was 5, and I decided to walk to the water, through old town.

And I was disappointed. There's nothing special at all about the old town of Antwerp, certainly not more so than, say, Bonn. And what is up with all the Italian restaurants, one after another, right next to each other, stretching down every street? I haven't seen so many ever - not even in Italy. The waterfront was… well, water. I thought it would be as interesting at the Rhine. It's not. I schlepped back to the restaurants in front of the train station and had a really mediocre lasagna and a really wonderful Leffe dark beer, one of my favorites. Read some of Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All - picked it up at a used book sale a while back - and watched the groups of men and women walking toward old town to party - they were from Spain, from England, from who knows where. Antwerp seems to be quite the party city for groups of young men and middle aged women - that must be a very interesting combination at around 1 or 2 in the morning.

I walked back to my hotel, to write the first part of this travelogue and post some updates to Facebook and Twitter before the Internet became over-run with logins by other hotel guests, who all start downloading porn at around 10. Once again, had a wretched time getting to sleep, which is just not "me" at all. I found the remake of "Brideshead Revisited" on a Dutch channel - they subtitle things, rather than dub them, thank goodness - and it got me through an hour. Finally, I drifted off.

The next day, I slept until 10, then went down to the breakfast room again for better Internet access. I wanted to see how easy it was to get to Lier, which Lonely Planet had recommended as a day trip. And, for once, something on this trip turned out to be easy. I  found the tiny train station ticket windows at last and bought a round trip ticket.

Lier was less than 15 minutes away. It's not *especially* pretty, but it had the small town historic charm in spots that I had hoped Antwerp would have a bit of. The old market square is nice, and this day, full of various vendors, a few taking down their tents already. There was a small crowd outside of the city hall, with six men in military uniform lining the steps. I knew it wasn't any kind of royal visit, since the military men weren't in their dress uniforms and didn't seem especially formal acting, and there was no other security at all. Turned out that one of their comrades had gotten married. They saluted as the happy couple walked down the steps, and the crowd applauded.

I had lunch at an Italian restaurant. My gawd, they are everywhere. They thought I was German, and I did nothing to dissuade them, since I'm feeling particularly self-conscious about being an American these days (see earlier blog). Then I walked over to the Zimmertoren, a tower with various time measurements - a traditional clock, an astronomical clock, a weekday clock, the phases of the moon, the tides, etc. Next to it is a small museum that houses The Wonder Clock or The Astronomical Clock - it's called both. It was constructed for the Brussels World Exhibition of 1935, and was sent to the US for the 1939 New York World's Fair - which is probably why it still exists, as it stayed there during the war. It has 93 types of clocks or time measurements on it. At the bottom are three automatons - the middle one has young girls spinning, each atop a planet, which rise and fall as a dial goes through their names. The entire thing is 16 feet high and weighs over 4500 Ibs.  It looks like something out of a 1930s movie about the future. Stefan would love it. Around one of these dials moves the slowest pointer in the world - its complete revolution will take 25800 years, which corresponds to the period of the precession of the Earth's axis.

The mascot of Lier is a sheep. Yet, I never saw any real sheep - just statues and advertising with such. I walked around the 17th center cottages and cobblestone streets around St. Margaretakerk (church was closed), the park right next door (several people walking around with golf pitching wedges - apparently, you can pitch around the park, but I saw only one person doing it), and then to St. Gummaruskerk, the main church.

Not being Roman Catholic, and not being European, churches like St. Gummaruskerk mostly confuse me; they're architecturally interesting, but always *so cold*. And often have signs discouraging visitors - telling you that you can't be there during services, that you can't go here or there in the sanctuary, etc.. Having grown up Baptist and in the USA (which, of course, is sad and should prevent me from ever working in Europe again, because I am completely ignorant of Europe - see earlier blog), churches were places that welcomed everyone, *particularly* during services. The church pastor and congregation were always ready to welcome people - and, even better, to convert them. Roman Catholics never try to convert visitors. Which, as an Atheist, I appreciate, but I would think they'd be looking for a way to get converts, since people are leaving the Roman Catholic Church in droves. Of course, then there's that whole statue thing…

Walked back to the train station and got the next train back to Antwerp - they are quite frequent. No one ever looked at my ticket either way. The ticket guy walked right past me after checking several people in my car. I guess I look honest.

Back in the hotel room, I watched a BBC travel show about the Orkney Islands. THAT is my kind of travel destination. I love it there so much. It made me realize how much I've been spoiled with travels. Every place can't be Okrney. Or Krakow. Or Plovdiv. Or Kotor. Or Prague. Antwerp is what it is. Obviously, a lot of people love it here. It's just not my thing.

Took a nap, woke up at 6, and decided, screw it, I'm done for the day. So I repacked my things, wrote more on the travelogue you are reading now, and watched whatever I could find on TV.

The next day, my MacBook alarm clock worked, and I got up at 8. I did an amazing amount of dawdling before I went downstairs to check out. The receptionist was happy to put my luggage behind the counter, and I headed out for yet another mediocre meal, this time at an English pub near the train station. The hotel receptionist had told me right when I checked in that the Fine Arts Museum was closed for renovations, but said that some of the art was available for viewing at two museums on the other side of town. So I walked all the way to the Port of Antwerp, only to find that the artwork was back in storage. I couldn't believe it. There was a temporary exhibit on Napoleon - but I suspected it would be lots of over-sized information boards, all in Flemish. I walked outside and just stood there. Now what?

I walked over to the Rockoxhuis Museum, which, like the Ruben's museum, is in a house. But it's supposed to have a LOT more paintings (and, indeed, it does), and a *few* pieces from the currently-closed fine arts museum. I went in, and the ticket seller asked me, "Are you a senior?" I softly said "No." He gave me my ticket, I walked into the first room, and I did my best not to start crying. I couldn't believe it. Do I look over 60? Do I look over 50? Thanks, Antwerp, for that finally kick in the gut. Your wish is granted, I promise: I will never come back.

I pulled myself together enough to look at the paintings and, indeed they were outstanding. I love paintings, except for most of the religious stuff. I was delighted with so many works of art, especially the depiction of Judith by Jan Massys (also spelled "Massijis") from the 1500s: she's nude from the waist up, adorned in jewels, a sword in her right hand, the head of Holofernes in her left hand, the expression on her face demure. Also loved "Proverbs" by Pieter Bruegel, from the late 1500s. "Bruegel's paintings have themes of the absurdity, wickedness, and foolishness of humans, and this painting is no exception." There are more than 100 identifiable idioms in the painting, though not all may have been identified - some are still in use today, amongst them: "swimming against the tide", "big fish eat little fish", "banging one's head against a brick wall", and "armed to the teeth", and there are some that are familiar if not identical to the modern English usage, such as "casting roses before swine".  Wikipedia goes into detail about it. What a shame the room didn't have a bench where I could stare at these and other paintings for a while and take in all they had to say.

I went out into the courtyard and took more photos - my dreams for my garden at home continue to grow.

I walked back to the train station, to the small grocery store inside, and grabbed some food for later that evening - no way I'm subjecting me to that wretched Ibis restaurant again for supper. Then headed to my hotel and spent two hours on the Internet, and at around 4:30, finally went to catch the hourly bus to the Brussels airport. From there, it was a 30 minute wait for the bus to the Ibis Budget Hotel - which was less time than I was expecting to wait, with my luck.

And now I'm in my room, which has a bunk over it. When I was in my 20s, I would have slept in that bunk, just for fun.

It's 9:15. I've played on the Internet and watched people walk their dogs in the field next door, a field I'm sure will be gone in 2-3 years, filled with houses or more hotels.

Random thoughts:

  • I never stop being delighted in seeing dogs in restaurants. I loved the few times I took my dogs to restaurants in Germany.
  • Europeans eat carbs - so why aren't they all obese, like Americans?
  • Saw two Can Ams (trikes)
  • Saw probably half a dozen people on mobility assistance scooters; I never saw that when I lived in Europe until 2009
  • I'm quite surprised not to see more African immigrants in Belgium. People from the Middle East I was expecting, but I thought I'd see a LOT more Africans.

Final thoughts:

In the last decade, I've been to Bruges, Liege, Brussels, Antwerp, Lier, and various coastal cities in Belgium. I've seen more of Belgium than most people from the USA. My overall impression: Belgium is an under-rated as a travel destination - but Antwerp is incredibly over-rated. I can't imagine coming to Brussels outside of having to be here, but if you have to be here, it's a fine place to be - certainly better than Frankfurt or Geneva. Bruges is, by FAR, my favorite place in Belgium, a city that's well-worth traveling to if you will be in Europe - go out of your way for it. But Antwerp? Skip it.

Also want to note that I found most folks in this country quite friendly and helpful, something I can't say about every country I visit. Even in Antwerp. A city I hope to never, ever visit again.

I won't be blogging again from/about this trip, as all that's left is a sleep, two flights and home. Inshallah.

Friday, June 14, 2013

First day in Antwerp

FYI, in addition to tweeting about my travels (as always), I am also posting travel updates to my Facebook page as well.

Thursday morning, I woke at 9 a.m. I think I got 7 hours of sleep, which, on this trip, is actually really good. Highlight of the morning: seeing a wild bunny out on the lawn of the hotel next door.

I took my time putting myself together. I packed up carefully (oh how glad I am that I have just my computer bag - full of way more than just my computer - and a carry on bag, with all this walking and moving I've had to do). I pushed it almost right up to check out time, because I didn't want to be stuck in Antwerp in a hotel lobby with no bathroom, waiting for my room to be ready. I watched @josswhedon on "Breakfast" out of London - the British accents all around him seem to have affected his speech.

I walked down stairs, asked when the shuttle would be leaving and, surprise, the last one left 45 minutes earlier. Is there a sign in the lobby saying this? Nope. There's just a time table on the counter, just like the one at the airport - written in tiny, tiny letters.

So I paid almost 20 euros for a seven minute taxi ride to the airport. Oh, I was pissed. And then, upon arrival, the driver started talking to someone who walked up to his driver's side door, leaving me to open my own door, walk around to the back, open the back, get out my luggage… he came running up saying, "Sorry! Sorry!" I turned around, did the hand gesture that means, "Bah! Go away" rather than something much more outrageous, and went inside the airport.

I took the escalators down to where I already knew the Antwerp bus was. The driver was closing the door and getting ready to pull out - so I ran and waved, fully expecting him not to care and pull away. And… he didn't! He opened up the doors at the bottom of the bus for my luggage, and patiently waited for me - no attitude at all once I got on the bus and asked, in english, "How much?"

It was 10 euros. A 45 minute bus ride from Brussels to Antwerp, cheaper than a 7 minute taxi ride to the airport. ARGH! But I did have to send this Facebook update on Jayne Abroad when I next had Internet access:

Hmmm... the bus from Mexico City to Puebla, in Mexico, has Internet access. The bus from Brussels to Antwerp does not. Come on, Europe, catch up to Mexico! For All About Puebla.

The ride was quiet, short and pleasant, and included another wild Belgian bunny siting in the large area of brush along the highway. The bus was mostly empty. We passed through a neighborhood of VERY large, pricey homes, then eventually came into Antwerp. The bus stops on the same street as the oh-so-grand Central train station. I gathered my things and walked to the station, then started trying to figure out where I was in relation to my hotel. A false start turned what should have been a 10 minute walk into a 30 minute walk, but it finally got me to the Sandton hotel (did I mention how glad I am to have so little luggage?). Surprise surprise, the hotel, even at 12:30, already had my room ready. WOOT!

I love the hotel's room decor. It's understated and very simple and tasteful. It's modern and eco-friendly. And I want the laminate version of the floor here in my kitchen someday. It's probably just 10 euros more than the Ibis budget airport hotel. Geesh but I love simplicity in a hotel!

So, in my first two hours since leaving Brussels, what have I seen, other than bunnies?
  • about half a dozen motorcyclists on the highway, all loaded down with gear, on their way to or coming from a trip abroad. It made my heart go pitter patter. 
  • a beautiful train station. Really, the Antwerp station is lovely.
  • Hassidic Jews, on their way to or from their work in the massive diamond trade here
  • people riding bicycles. Not like in Portland, Oregon, where people ride extremely expensive bikes fit for the Tour de France, and the oh-so-fit riders ride like they are racing; no, these are people of a variety of ages and ethnicities and body types, riding girlie bikes, 3 speed bikes, rent-a-bikes, some riding leisurely, some riding fast.
  • some really adorable scooters
I decided to walk around and get my bearings. I was determined to be out and about for at least five hours. I decided to head slowly for the house of Pieter Paul Rubens, which is now a museum. It was… okay. Lovely house, lovely grounds, and that alone was worth the visit, but there's not much artwork at all, and certainly not much by Rubens himself. And the museum staff were like those in Germany - I tried to view a room in the wrong order as directed by my guidebook and the security guard nearly had a heart attack. But I'm glad I went - the house really is beautiful, and I now have some ideas for my own gardens next year. And I'll get to say, "Oh, I got this idea from when I was at the house of Rubens in Antwerp." It will sound ultra snobby but the moment will be ruined because I'll be wearing very baggy shorts, Aldi clogs and a t-shirt covered in stains at the time.

I went on the hunt for a place to have coffee and read through my Lonely Planet Belgium and Luxembourg guidebook. I found a townie bar on Wiegstraat, tucked away amid high end shops, and looking like any old-people's bar in Germany - wood paneling, a bit of kitsch, older people drinking in the middle of the day. They had a radio station on that was playing Doris Day, Ella Fitzgerald, Annie Ross and Bing Crosby swinging jazz numbers from the 50s and 60s. It started to rain when I'd finished my coffee, but one of the many joys of Europe is that no one is going to rush you out of a cafe or bar or restaurant just because you finished your drink or meal - you can sit there as long as you like. And so I did.

My Lonely Planet book is way outdated - it was published in 2001, and refers to the Metro here in Antwerp as under-construction - and therefore doesn't have a Metro map for the city. But it's still been essential. The Internet is NOT always available, I have no way to print anything - having this book has saved this trip from being a horrible mess. I looked over and mapped out my options for the next three days, which is way more than most tourists spend in Belgium, and I think I've found enough to make this a nice trip, rain or shine.

After mapping out all my options, I headed back outside. It was raining - and, no, I did not bring a rain jacket, because I was supposed to be in SUNNY BARCELONA NOW. I stopped at a grocery store and got some wine and some olives, then headed back to the hotel. And I've spent my time filling out Vueling forms to try to get a refund for my canceled flights, tweeting, updating Facebook, and writing and publishing two blogs, including the one you're reading now. And rinsing out the only two t-shirts I brought (I'm an idiot when packing, even after all these years - I also forgot to bring moisturizer and hair gel).

And I'm trying to stay up until midnight, not because I'm not tired, but because this is Antwerp, and I expected people to start coming back to their rooms, and being quite noisy about it, starting at around 10. I was wrong - they started at 11.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

No Spain for me this trip

I am remiss to not have noted earlier how helpful people have been in Brussels to me, from the guy at the hotel reception who told me a certain street was great to walk down and look at, but under no circumstances should I eat at any restaurants there (tourist traps), the elderly Arab gentlemen who helped me use the Brussels metro for the first time (I didn't understand where to insert my one-journey card in the gate, and he could see me struggling), the young Arab guy who sold me a phone for this trip and conversed with me in German, Spanish and English, and on and on.

Wednesday, I thought I still had a flight to Barcelona in the afternoon with Vueling, since the airline had sent me NOTHING otherwise, there was nothing on Google News, and Twitter was quite silent on there being any problems at Brussels airport. BBC was saying that there were problems at some airports, but several Internet searches never mentioned any problems.

So I checked out of the hotel, kept my luggage at the front desk and walked around my part of Brussels. It's actually quite a nice city - okay, it's not anywhere as pretty as, say, Krakow, but it's certainly nicer than Geneva or Bonn. I loved all the Art Nouveau architecture - I know Europeans don't find them special, but I do (I know, I know, I'm a "typical American," as was pointed out to me the day before). While I might not make a special effort to come to Brussels after this trip, I wouldn't mind at all coming again.

I also wish I hadn't forgotten to make fun of my European counterparts yesterday regarding their dietary needs. So I will now: several have gone glutton free, which they all announced dramatically, and there was a point where they were all going on and on about what they could and couldn't have, to the point that it felt like they were each trying to outdo the other in terms of "special needs." I couldn't decide if it was more ilke an episode of Portlandia or the EU Bureaucrat version of a certain Monty Python skit

I've taken only 2 or 3 photos so far. I just didn't feel like taking pictures. But have a look at Google images for photos of Brussels - there are some lovely sites here. I'll upload my photos when I'm back in the states.

So, after a nice day of walking around, a nice lunch at Au Saint d'Hic (I just love local places where I'm completely out of place), I leisurely headed to the Metro, taking it to the Zuidstation/Gare du Midi (just two stops away) and getting the train to the airport. None of which I would have done had I known my flight was cancelled and there was no hope of leaving that day or probably even Thursday for Barcelona - things that WERE known by the airlines but not emailed out.

So, I got to the airport and TA DA, there was the sign that the flight was cancelled. And the long, long line at the counter where we were supposed to get guidance. Since I thought the strike was just a day, and I was going to be stuck in Brussels just for one extra day, I was fine in line - calm, circumspect, entertaining a baby so he'd stop crying. Plus, I've never had a flight canceled that didn't have one later the same day that I got on, so I just thought, hey, this was bound to happen, you can wait a day, no prob. But as I traveled through the line, some folks that talked to the counter folks walked back and told people what they'd heard. And things weren't looking good. When I got to the counter, what those earlier people had warned was confirmed:
  • they could book me on a late night flight the next day but had NO guarantees it wouldn't be cancelled as well - which means I would have had to hang out at the airport for hours the next day and hope I could find a hotel at, oh, 10 p.m. at night if the flight did get canceled. 
  • they could book me on a flight on Friday, which had a better chance of actually happening, HOWEVER, there was a chance another country could strike and affect my return flight from Barcelona on Sunday morning - meaning I would miss my flight back to the USA. 
So, as much as it broke my heart, I canceled both flights. Even hopping a train to Barcelona, which, according to Internet searches, takes anywhere from 10 - 17 hours and can involve up to five train changes, could have left me stranded in Barcelona if my flight had been canceled - no one could say it wouldn't happen.

How do I feel about the strike? I'm not angry at the strikers. The European Union should have consulted with workers, not just made the decision to make the EU one air space without participation in the decision-making with those that would be adversely affected. I'm fascinated that the EU, when it funds international initiatives, insists on local consultations/participation in decision-making in Africa, Asia, etc., yet doesn't employ these same activities for EU citizens. The EU is really messing up on the whole citizen-participation thing - something that a government MUST do in order to remain viable. Mark my words…

 I bought Internet access at Rent to Connect, on the second floor, right across from the official information booth for the airport. The guy that runs the place was AMAZING. When I got logged off prematurely with still 45 minutes paid for, he retrieved them and gave me 15 more minutes. He sold me time for my cell phone - and when I told him what I needed it for, he talked me down from 20 euros to 10. Yes, HE TALKED ME DOWN in what I should pay. He helped me make a call because I couldn't figure it out. And he told me where to find the shuttle for the hotel I'd booked. When people treat you like that, how can you be in a bad mood?

I decided I'd take the shuttle to the airport hotel I'd already booked for Sunday evening -- ibis budget hotel Brussels Airport. If they didn't have a room, no prob - they had free Internet, something the airport did NOT have, and I could use the net to find another hotel. Went down to the bus stop and had no idea when the bus would be arriving, because the time table was at the eye level of someone who is 8 or 9 feet tall - I kid you not. A French guy wanted to read it so he climbed up on a bench, and even then it wasn't at eye level and the text was too tiny for him to read. Oh, incompetence, you can be sooo creative… The French guy and his co-worker had driven 250 kilometers from France to take the flight from Brussels to Barcelona. Watched a fight almost break out among people waiting for a shuttle to their hotel - more people than the shuttle could take, so two had to wait. It was ugly. The exchange was all in French - though I'm pretty sure that, even so, I know what was said. 

The bus arrived after an almost hour wait, and I got to the hotel, and was greeted by super-friendly receptionists. I laughed out loud when I saw the room. It's like if Ikea did a room, accenting it in their oh so bright pastels and cheapest furniture. But it was clean, the bed was comfortable, the TV had an amazing number of channels in a variety of languages, the Internet was lightening fast compared to the Hotel A La Grande Clochem (but it cut off every now and again), and I could have played with the shower forever - the shower head lit up the water in color, based on how hot or cold the water was! It was one of the most entertaining water and light shows I've seen in a while. I wasted a LOT of water. 

I spent two hours corresponding on Facebook, trying to decide whether to go to Bonn or Brussels and reaching out to folks. Unfortunately, my friends in Bonn were available only for a supper one day here, or another two days later, meaning I would have spent many hours alone - and I think I've spent enough time in Bonn on my own, thanks. So, I decided I'd go to Antwerp.

This airport hotel, and the other hotels nearby, are truly in the middle of no where. The only things around are high tech companies and farm fields. Your only option for food is the machines in your hotel lobby or the restaurant at the more "upscale" Ibis hotel. So I walked over, free-drink-ticket-with-entree in hand. The service was awful - it took probably 20 minutes before anyone took my order, and half the entrees were no longer available. And once the food came - my Gawd, it was one of the most wretched meals I've had in a restaurant. It wasn't inedible - but it was all prepared elsewhere, days or weeks ago, then put together and heated up. I was starving, but could only finish half of everything. I've had much, much better meals on airplanes. I suspect Sodexo was involved in this travesty.

And yet - I wasn't in a bad mood. I had a place to stay. I had options. The trip wasn't working out the way I wanted, but I've traveled enough to know that such is a part of travel, and you have to make the best of it. As long as you have options and a credit card, you're okay while traveling.

At 1 a.m., I forced myself to turn everything off and try to sleep. I really thought I'd conquered jet lag, but the night before and this one proved otherwise.

More later.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Abroad again at last - from Brussels

I like Brussels.

At first I didn't: the area around the EU offices on a Sunday is a sad, dirty mess of empty streets (except for some kinda scary people) , and Metro stations in shockingly awful condition. I know what it looks like on a Sunday because I went there instead of my hotel when I arrived - oops. Thank goodness for that Moroccan cab driver - he didn't speak any of my languages, I didn't speak any of his, but somehow, we had a nice conversation and he got me to my hotel, off Stalingrad street, in a very lively neighborhood, a mix of natives and immigrants and a fair number of non-touristy restaurants.

I have to note that the people working the ticket counter at the airport train station were quite helpful, and though it took me forever to finally find the metro station from the train station (finally saw the one, obscured sign telling me where it was), yet again navigating mass transit in a different country, in a different language, has made me feel like the adventurer I like to imagine myself to be. I just wish I'd put where the hotel was on my map before I left Oregon, not just where I was working while here.

I like Brussels - it's got the grime of Portland, but SUCH a better personality. It looks like a lot of life happens on the street - eating, drinking, socializing - I always like that in a city I'm visiting. But you don't sit out in a cafe to be seen - you do it because the beer, the wine, the food, the company, the people watching, the normalcy of it all for anyone, everyone. I love the international flavor of the city, with people and languages from all over the globe all around me. And people of all economic backgrounds ride bicycles in the neighborhood of my hotel - not ultra-expensive things that could be in the Tour de France, but bikes of a variety of shapes and sizes, and they dress in normal clothes, rather than biking clothes, making bike riding seem all that much more accessible - just as I remember it to be in Europe. My hotel is just the kind I like - and 30 Euros less a night than what my colleagues are paying, and in a neighborhood full of life as opposed to the deadness of the EU neighborhood. I'm at the Hotel A La Grande Clochem - found it on Trip Advisor - and I have one of those tiny tiny European hotel rooms that I guess make a lot of people crazy, since the receptionist keeps asking me, "How do you like your tiny room?" I love it. Gemütlich. The hotel is in Place Rouppe, a plaza with a roundabout with a statue and fountain in the middle, just the stereotype you want in Europe, and just a few blocks from several tourist sites, including Manneken Pis (which is, indeed, nothing special). There are two outdoor cafes next door, and a block away, the Metro station and shops, many run by immigrants, selling all kinds of computers, phones and accessories. I ride the subway about 30 minutes to get to the EU office, and it gives me time to people watch, walk, and collect my thoughts.

My first day, I pushed myself hard to stay up as late as possible, hoping it would help me with jet lag. After unpacking, I walked around the neighborhood, and stopped at Au Saint d'Hic, a small cafe almost right next door, grooving on toast in a mushroom sauce and a salad and a delicious cappuccino. You gotta love that name - d'Hic. It's so me. I had the whole day to do whatever I wanted, but I stuck to just this neighborhood - no Atomium for me until I can see it with Stefan. I finally crashed at 6 p.m., and woke up quite refreshed for the work day with fellow researchers, which was a good one (as was the breakfast at the hotel!). That night, we all went out for a mind-blowingly fantastic seafood dinner at Bij den Boer. I spent WAY too much money. But it was just so good, and the setting so lovely. Walking back to my hotel from the Metro, I could see the cathedral in the distance, lit up in purple against the night sky. Lovely.

For some reason, the next morning, my Macbook alarm clock failed - I guess I didn't set it right. Luckily, some people were quite loud getting into the elevator next to my room, making me up with enough time to throw on my clothes and make it to work that day in plenty of time.

Sadly, ultimately, the work that brought me to Brussels turned out not to be as nice as the city. I had forgotten just how much comments based on my nationality can hurt - comments along the lines that, because I'm an American, I can't possibly understand a particular issue or statement. Assumptions that I haven't lived abroad, that I don't follow international news more than even more Europeans. I had forgotten that people will make all sorts of unkind observations regarding my nationality that they would never say to someone from any other country. Saying some of the things that have been said to me because I'm an American to someone from another country over the years, including a couple here in Brussels from people I considered colleagues - "that is exactly what someone from France would say" or  "I'm not sure you can understand a European context because you're Mexican" or "You obviously don't know what's happening in Greece, because your Canadian" - would be outrageous. I try to shrug it off as misplaced anger - the government of my country has done incredibly dreadful, shameful things that have had dire consequences in the world, and cutting me with a remark makes people feel like they are getting back at the country. Or I think, well, they want to feel superior, to get that special boost that apparently comes with putting down someone from the USA, with a smile and maybe even an eye roll and a small laugh at my expense - fine, go for it if that floats your boat. I rarely respond to such, as it rarely happens - but it does happen.

I never assume an idea is automatically bad because it comes from a person from a particular country. I never assume someone from a particular country automatically agrees with their government. And I never assume there is something so unique in the world - some aspect of human nature or community - that it really cannot be found anywhere else. Wish more people thought that as well.

None of this happened that first day of work - it was all the next day, when my guard was a little down, having been made to feel so welcomed and comfortable by the core group. That second day, I also had some of my presentation points denied by one of the attendees, someone who represents an old-school way of thinking about my field, someone who is quite threatened by non-traditional trends. They were arguments I would have expected a decade ago, not now. I'll write more about that on my professional blog. But that onslaught of mischaracterizations about the topic I had just presented on made me feel rather lonely in that room full of Europeans, as I tried to spar, professionally, dispassionately, in a fact-based way, with someone determined to dismiss all of my points in front of everyone.

I held it together, stay engaged in the rest of the day, smiled a lot, tweeted good things about the day, and stopped for drinks with a few of the organizers before heading back to my hotel - and got another anti-American slight from someone. I just smiled and took another sip of beer.

Came back to my hotel and got a falafel from a sad little place near my hotel - though the falafel was quite good, made fresh right in front of me. And then couldn't fall asleep until 3 a.m. - a combination of jet lag and anxiety over how the day had gone. Wondering how different the day would have been had that one person not been there, feeling quite ambushed and, well, robbed of my big moment that I had looked forward to for weeks (and, in a way, years). Second guessing everything. No, not at all a good day and night.

So, I'm siting here after just four hours of sleep, wondering what to do between now and my flight at 3. Feeling so tired. But there's nothing to be done - I have to check out by 11, and I don't want to leave my room until the last minute since I've no where to go - I hate looking for bathrooms out and about, I really do.

All that said - I still really like Brussels. I wouldn't at all mind coming back here. But not to work for this particular agency. Which I'm pretty sure is never, ever going to happen again...

On to Barcelona.