On castles and forests, fairytale villages and quite a lot of chocolate.

When I think about Europe, what arises is the semi-fascination I have with castles and old brick. I gravitate towards cobblestone pavements and the shells of old architecture as much as, perhaps, to the stories and secrets and folklore these contain. And so, rather than sites and landmarks and tourist hotspots, I wanted to experience the essence of Belgium in its culture and villages and the warmth of its red brick. All credit is due to my adventure-spirited Calvin, who (as he does) interpreted my indecisiveness and planned us a route through Belgium that Lonely Planet couldn’t have possibly outdone.

But first, the Ancestors.

Our ancestors are totally essential to our every waking moment, although most of us don’t even have the faintest idea about their lives, their trials, their hardships or challenges. –Annie Lennox.

My grandfather arrived on Ellis Island from Russia, via Poland and then Antwerp, on a ship called the SS Kroonland. The Red Star Line had a fleet of these ships; immigrant ferries, really, that transported fleeing Europeans to a land of new opportunities. On 12 December, 1921, Josel Widra travelled with his mother and siblings on a 10-day transatlantic journey that would seed my New York roots.

So when I was deciding where I’d go from Holland, I set my sights on Antwerp as a starting point, as this is where my travelling genes were pollinated. Maybe.

It turns out that the Red Star Line had a helping hand in the processing of emigrants as well as the shipping. There were lodging houses and disinfection stations and days, if not weeks, of waiting and cleaning and more waiting and more disinfecting. This, after many days’ journey in crowded trains, all the while the passengers were inspected (for lice and disease and of course proper paperwork) at each step of the way.

While I unfortunately didn’t learn any specifics of my grandfather’s emigration (the museum’s research room was closed due to COVID), I did learn about the collective journey, and thus emerged from the experience with more questions than answers about the lengths that a solo mother (my great-grandmother, Tillie), went through to ensure a safe passage from Eastern Europe to a new life on the other side of the ocean.

The hardest of my hardships pale in comparison.

Exploring.

As is our bent, C and I explored Antwerp on foot, basing ourselves in the center of the old city by the Cathedral of Our Lady, a brilliant and towering Gothic church which served both as home base and a lighthouse of sorts when our (read: my) navigational skills failed. We sampled local beers (thumbs up) and local sweets (ditto), perused local art (Rubenshuis), learnt about local legends (Brabo), and experienced a unique sort of local hospitality that I have not yet categorized in a Soup-Nazi-meets-Falafel-King experience that we’re not soon to forget (yet resulted in some of the best falafel I’ve ever had!).

The city is equally charming and confusing, its architecture is an ad-hoc mélange of step-gabled beauties and 1970’s mishaps, with a surprisingly large red light district that cuts a swath across the gray concrete near the harbour. Leaving, I was relieved that the Belgians seem to be taking this pandemic thing more seriously than the Dutch, and I looked forward to exploring both the Belgian countryside and its fairytale villages. Also pralines.

Napoleon was here.

My personal guided tour of Brussels and its surrounds began in the municipality of Rixensart and had us trapising through the lovely trails on the grounds and surrounds of the Château de La Hulpe (trees! flowers! gardens! ponds! and a castle! 5⭐) and then the magnificent remnants of the 1000-year old Villers Abbey.

“Si je n’étais pas l’homme representé dans mes images, j’aimerais être l’oiseau. J’ai toujours envie de m’envoler, de bouger, de partir dialoguer avec le vent.”

Folon

A short ride away, we explored the battlegrounds at Waterloo, my American education’s rendition of European History glaring in its unenlightenment, and then Brussels proper, where I was as equally stymied by the arbitrary architecture as I was in Antwerp. Even more strange was the reenactment of some obscure tradition we stumbled into at the Grand-Place, involving giant puppets, a speech, a parade, and some ceremonial carrying of cheese (or an egg or something) to Greece. I may have some of these details slightly wrong.

We perused the fantastic Cook & Book, saw Mannekin Pis (because, Brussels), and ate gaufres (ditto). After 1/2 a day, a torrential downpour and not enough castles, we were headed to Bruges.

Des pralines et les rues pavées.

The quintessential image of Belgium (in my head at least) is of the medieval cobbled streets and picturesque canals of Bruges. Apparently, after its main waterways silted up (500 or so years ago), Bruges lost out to Antwerp as a major trading/shipping city and this setback ended up preserving the area: its medieval façades remained virtually intact as other Belgian cities gentrified, and Bruges was spared most of the damage from WW1 and WW2 that other cities faced. Today, to say that Bruges’ centuries-old architecture delights and enchants is an understatement.

So we wandered, delighted and enchanted and content, through the rues pavées, over canals, along the river, and in and out of praline shops (n.b., we managed to find the absolute BEST pralines in Belgium)…my only regret of the trip was not buying an entire kilo, as we also managed to consume the lot by the end of the week.

And into the hills…

Fairytale villages, eclectic architecture, historical battlegrounds and loads of chocolate behind us, I had no idea what to expect for hiking in the Ardennes, except that it was to begin with a kayak trip “on that river by the castle”. I had seen pictures, and wanted to experience it for myself.

Fast forward, and we’re kayaking down a semi-bloated river which only weeks before had been the scene of horrific flash floods and unfortunate casualties (life and property). And while the cranky shoulder did complain, the sight of a castle as I’m kayaking down a tree-lined river in the heart of the Ardennes with one of my favourite people on the planet really put into perspective what’s important: the best things in life aren’t tangible, but instead are stitched together from these feelings of warmth and belonging, of peace and ok-ness even whilst floating on a river with a throbbing shoulder thousands of kilometres from home.

(photo courtesy of Chris G.)

The day continued with another castle (la roche en Ardenne), some of the best strawberries I’ve had this season, local beer, Dutch cheese, some borrowed butter, and deep sleep in fresh country air. More kudos to my tour guide for finding us the most precious and absolutely picture-perfect maison d’hôtes in a former farmhouse situated in the heart of rolling farmlands and quaint country villages.

We rounded out this leg of the adventure with a hike: it should be mostly flat…it’s just the perimeter of a lake, after all. Famous last words, but a quite enjoyable 15km trek around the lake/river, its ups and downs testing our wander-weary limbs. The climbs were technical, the views were lovely, and at the end of the day, its two adventurers were sweaty, muddy, hungry, but nonetheless sated…

So I said au revoir to Belgium, leaving things on a to-do list for next time: more hikes, a 1-month sojourn in said guest house to hunker down and study French, more storybook towns and ditto castles.

Next stop, Berlin: Unexpected detours and an experiment in remote work.

On windmills and cheese: A trepidatious foray back into the world.

579 days ago I stepped off a flight from Burma, via Thailand, through Hong Kong, and into a new world order. In that many days, I have spent face-to-face time with fewer people than I have digits on my left hand. This morning was the first meal I have eaten indoors, in a restaurant, in 18 months.

Anxiety, social awkwardness, uncertainty, stranger-danger, general uneasiness… all feelings that have been percolating these last months. And with that also brewing was a weird claustrophobia, leaving me feeling stranded on some desert island. Sans desert…or palm trees…or anything remotely resembling bright blue seas.

So about a month ago, when the EU opened its gates to blue passport holders with that magic little card, I felt like I was holding not a vaccination certificate, but something of a golden ticket. I found myself clicking “purchase” on a round-trip flight to Amsterdam with a long window of unknown in the middle.

Fast forward a few weeks and I’m sitting in a hotel in a little city just north of A’dam, having spent the afternoon amongst canals lined with storybook architecture and meticulously cobbled streets, marshy canals teeming with European waterfoul, and centuries-old windmills looking, even in their retirement, as impressive as the day they were commissioned.

Alkmaar windmill. Yes, this is real.

Welcome to Amsterdam.

I’ll back up a few days to Sunday morning, when I landed in Amsterdam, met a friend at my hotel, and began a whirlwind couple of days traipsing back and forth across the city. Me: masked; the rest of A’dam: much less-so!

My first impression is that travel has changed not least because there are more things to worry about: standing too close to someone in a queue; whether there is outdoor seating at a restaurant; putting on a mask, taking it off, putting it on again, then wondering if it’s ever okay to maybe not wear a mask for a bit; Borders! Did I fill out the right entry form? Can I even enter, or have the rules changed again? It is quite honestly a little stressful. And so I’ve arrived on the other side of the proverbial pond, but have arrived also quite apprehensive. I’m feeling a bit shell-shocked by the amount of “outness” in more than a year and a half. We introverts were able to spend this time mega-introverting…this is hard. And a bit weird. And I’m not entirely sure I want to go back to the old verison of normal.

That said, the architecture is lovely, and I managed to also try many of the local delicacies on offer: stroopwafel, frietjes, and broodje haring. Note: unlike the stroopwafel, broodje haring is definitely a subjective taste: it’s salt-cured herring with pickles and onions on bread, like a cross between pickled herring and a oniony, jello sandwich. Or something. I gave it a thumbs-up! Ditto to the fresh stroop wafels, hand-made using the secret family recipe!

Onwards. Holland, Part II: Windmills and cheese.

Did I mention the trains? Coming from Boston where the T works when it feels like working, and the Commuter Rail takes one far enough as to be only semi-convenient, the trains in Holland are like magic. Take Dutch perfectionism and overlay that onto a web of trains and trams and metro lines, sprinkle in speed and cleanliness, and one gets from point A to point B quickly, conveniently and hassle-free.

As such, it took about 1/2 an hour to go roughly 40km, and like that I was literally transported to that little city north of A’dam: Alkmaar for Part II of my Holland experience: Windmills and cheese.

My first day in Alkmaar was a train ride and a wander about the town, where I stumbled upon a busy-ish main shopping street (bleh) and a load of tourists (no masks: bleh x2), and a local park where I found a windmill and some very strange outdoor art (flanked by a sign in Dutch that read pas op loslopende mensen” which loosely translates to “watch out for stray people” – this, I found amusing!). I went to bed that first night a little disappointed and wondering where had all the windmills gone? (and maybe a little about the stray people)

So it was to my very pleasant surprise the next morning, when I got into a conversation with a local college student out walking her dog, and she offered to show me her city. We ended up at a nature reserve on the other side of town (that I’d never have found on my own!) where there are 4 intact-but-dormant windmills. I learnt that the town had a castle in medieval times, and although the town sat higher than some of its surrounding area, these windmills (there were originally 6) helped ensure that the water flowed away from the castle and the town. From there we looked at the Grote Kerk (literally, big church; more formally Grote Sint-Laurenskerk), wandered about some more, and found possibly the best cheese shop I’ve ever been in.

Windmills and cheese, sorted.

A simple conversation with a stranger led to a serendipitous afternoon and a mini-adventure I’d never have known about otherwise. These are the things I’ve missed during lockdown: small kindnesses, chance encounters, simple but new experiences, cultural connection, situational spontaneity, small wonders with old (and new) friends…


And, so, the short sojourn in Holland ended with my getting on another train… this one to Antwerp for the next leg of the journey: Adventures in Belgium: Castles and forests.