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.

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