On the morning we left Paris, we had breakfast at the street cafe right outside our rented apartment. We finalized our packing and took the subway to the Gare du Nord train station.
The station is under renovation and not quite done, but it will be new and shiny when it’s done. I noticed a walkway above the waiting area made of glass. It was interesting to watch people walking back and forth through the thick, frosted glass above us.
After we boarded the train to Brussels, I was trying to log onto the train’s WIFI. A young couple ahead of us noticed that we were struggling with tech stuff. The young man, John, offered to let me use his hot spot connection to check email. Wherever we have gone so far, people have been very helpful and generous.
On the ride, his wife Marie was working on some intricate artwork on her laptop. “I have a working holiday, she said. John and Marie were on their way to visit her parents in Brussels. The train was clean and modern with wide, comfortable seats. We rolled through the countryside observing that, unlike California, the fields mostly picked and barren, and are not being seeded for a winter crop.
Rebecca and I were both surprised that no one ever asked for our tickets on either leg of the train trip to Brussels. There was no border crossing, no passport check, no intercom announcement, not even a sign as you might see if you were leaving California saying, “You are now entering Oregon.” There is an openness, cleanness, a sense of friendship, honor and trust.
When we arrived in Brussels, Kevin had instructed us to take the subway line six to the end of the line and wait for him to pick us up.
When Kevin arrived, Seppe, his three-year-old son was riding on his shoulders. We had seen birth announcements and Christmas cards with his photo, but this was our first time to meet Kevin’s children in person. Kevin walked us three blocks back to his car. When he reached for his keys, he pulled out one of Seppe’s toy cars instead of the key; he handed it to his son.
Kevin drove us toward their home in Londerzeel and made a stop at daycare to pick up his daughter, Jolien. She is just over a year, and curious about everything. We arrived at the house and Kevin got the kids out of their car seats while Rebecca and I unloaded our luggage.
Kevin was our exchange student in Winters in 2001. Since then, we have visited him once and he visited us with his (then) fiancee once, and then, by himself, twice. This was the first time that we had seen Greet (pronounced “Great” with a bit of a rolled “rr”) since she visited in 2010 in Winters.
Greet arrived from work at about 6pm. Greet works as a distribution manager for Proctor and Gamble nearby, in Mechelen. She speaks English even better than she did when we were here in 2009. Kevin and Greet are generous with their language, speaking in English to each other when they are in our presence, even though they would be much more at ease speaking in Dutch or French. (Dutch is the predominate language in this part of Belgium, but everyone knows both languages, as well as some level of proficiency in English. It is also common to know German and at least one other Romance language, such as Spanish or Italian. It seems like a different world from the USA where we typically only know English and maybe have an exposure to Spanish. I feel somehow that we are missing out on something.
In the evening, Connie Moons, who is running for regional council of the Londerzeel-Maldreren-Steenhuffel municipality, knocked at their door. She left some literature about the upcoming election.
I asked Connie if she spoke English. “Yes,” she said, (but not nearly as well as Kevin or Greet). I asked her about the biggest issues facing this community. “Traffic,” she replied without hesitation. “The drivers don’t follow the speed limit laws.” I asked her what would fix it. She said that there needs to be better education about the need for safety, stricter enforcement and some narrowing of certain streets.
How about the size of the city, I asked her. She said something that I didn’t quite understand, but I took it that she meant that those decisions were made by a regional body and that this council did not have control of growth.
I know from “Smart Cities” conferences that I had attended as council member in California that narrowing of streets slows down traffic naturally. But it is unfortunate that the Belgian cities don’t have control of the level of growth. I know that this has always been a difficult “pressure-cooker” issue for us, but at least we have a lot of say about our size and growth rate.
It is interesting that traffic is the biggest concern for many people here since the history of the community dates back to the 600’s, springing to life as a “crossroads” community that built its business on passers by, traffic going from Brussles to Ghent.
Londerzeel now serves as a quiet suburban community of about 17,000 for people who work in the urban cities of Brussles or Antwerp.
When I asked Kevin about why they chose to live in this town he said “The schools were good and only about 500 meters from the house. It’s between the two cities where we work, and the house was what we could afford four years ago,” Kevin told us.
Their house is a modern brick structure with glossy floor tiles, all-glass doors dividing the living room from the foyer, a brand new kitchen, and a robot mower for the large rear yard. Kevin showed me the lighting system he chose for the new kitchen. On his phone, he had an app that comes on with an image that sort of looks like the moon, with a yellowish glow at the top and bluish glow on the bottom, and myriad lunar hues in between that he can choose for mood lighting in his kitchen.
The children ate early and then Greet took Seppe to bed while Rebecca read an animal book to Jolien. Kevin cooked dinner.
Rebecca keeps a journal faithfully. She is very good about noting details, especially about food, dress and little mannerisms of people we meet. I often ask her about details that I did not recall. She described the dinner this way:
We had champagne and chips first, then a zucchini, tomato, and cheese baked dish served with red wine. It was nine by the time we sat down. After dinner we talked some more…
Later on, we discussed many options that we could choose for sightseeing over the next few days while Kevin and Greet work. We would travel to Ghent tomorrow by train, (train station about a mile walk from the house), we would ride by bus to downtown Brussels the next day and meet them for dinner (bus stop just 30 meters to the right of this house), and have a free day on Friday to do laundry and catch up on writing. On the weekend, they plan to take us to visit Kevin’s parents, (who also came to visit us when Kevin was our exchange student). We finally went to bed at about 10pm, (22:00 as they say here), after our first day in Belgium .
Wednesday, September 19th
Greet leaves early, and is out of the house by 6:45. I got up a bit later to find Kevin feeding Jolien while Seppe was playing with the vinyl sticker book Rebecca had brought for him. I took a plastic jetliner out of the page of stickers and placed it on one of the display scene pages showing a bridge going across a bay. Seppe said something in Dutch that I didn’t understand. Then he pulled off the sticker where I had placed it on the water part of the background and placed it above the bridge. “He said the plane would get wet there,” Kevin said to me.
When they were gone, I really had a chance to look around the house. I marvel at all the environmental features of this house. It has very tight thermal windows, and the insulation seems to have a very high R rating. When I flush the toilet, I hear a pump in the garage go on. When I had asked Kevin about it, he explained that the house has a rainwater re-use system. All the toilets get their water from a cistern under the house that stores rainwater. Another handy feature in the bathroom is a little catch drain reservoir in case you accidentally lose a something valuable down a drain. This is not unlike a “P” trap in the US, but it’s a lot easier. It’s just like unscrewing a jar to retrieve that that diamond ring!
Rebecca and I left the house at about 10:30 and made it to the Londerzeel train station in time for the 11:08 train to Ghent. The train was right on time. They are so quiet that I did not hear our train approach until it was only about 50 feet away. We boarded and were in Ghent in 35 minutes. I am constantly impressed with the transportation system here. Quiet, clean, and efficient.
Rebecca describes our arrival. (As a stylistic custom from here on, I will italicize her entries):
We got off in Ghent where a man was playing beautiful music on a grand piano outside the station. No tip jar, just playing to welcome people.
We got a city map and walked toward the center of the old town, looking for a phone store along the way. We found a couple, but they did not have the kind of card Woody needs for the phone he bought just for our trip. We found the city square or plaza (it isn’t square). We were hungry, so we chose a cafe and sat down. A nice English speaking waiter came to take our order. I had a vegetarian puff pastry with mushroom sauce and croquettes. Woody had chicken wings. His food came first, so he ate slowly but mine didn’t come out. Finally we asked the waitress who had taken over for the waiter. She said she would inquire, but she never returned. Our first waiter came by. He said he’d check. We were there 45 minutes before I got my food. Woody got a free beer out of the deal, but we had to wait another 15 minutes for that!
Inside, the establishment looks like it’s a hip place at night because they had a cool way to stack in the customers. Each booth had one above it, like bunk beds with stairs up to their cozy little nook. Woody climbed up and I took a photo.
Ghent was the second largest city in Europe from the tenth through the 14th century, second only to Paris. It is today an amazing juxtaposition of very old buildings, narrow cobblestone lanes with modern, sleek streetcars zipping by, carrying groups of kids on their way to school, elderly shoppers and young adults on their way to the University. And of course, there are people like us who are visiting or passing through.
At Saint Nicholas’s Cathedral, a project by the artist L. Blomme was being displayed. I talked to the deacon on duty. I asked him what the purpose of the show was. He told me that they liked the way the artist took verses of the bible and brought them to life.
The church did seem very alive with lots of visitors and activity. Many young families were walking around and it seemed to me that there was an amazing communion of the ancient and modern coming together in this church.
We entered another church, Saint Baafskathedraal. Inside, we saw lots of religious icons and robes. We went down into the crypt and saw many gold and silver challaces and nicely embroidered vestments as well as lovely lace. Back upstairs, behind the altar, was a suspended skeleton of a whale, maybe 30 feet long. We wondered why until we found the sigh that explained it. This young whale had washed up, fatally injured by a ship, and people tried to save him. He died, but they decided to keep the skeleton as a reminder to be kind to animals, I guess.
We continued walking and made our way up to the castle farther up the road and climbed up the tower stairs round and round. There were some lovely parts and nice views of the city.
When we were finished, we rode the tram back to the train station and then took the train back to Londerzeel (a slower on because we missed the express) and then walked back to Kevin and Greet’s house.
Later at dinner, I mentioned the art display to Kevin. He told me that the church is going through a crisis, nowadays. They have lost most of their followers. The church no longer seems relevant to people’s lives. “Just 30 or 40 years ago, the entire country was Catholic,” he told me.
Now, he said, there is a lot of political discussion here in Belgium about whether to allow a Muslim only school. I asked him what he thought of that. “I think it’s a problem when you separate kids. They should all go to the same school so that they can learn together. They should know that it’s OK for people to have different religions and to look different. There used to be Catholic only schools but now I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
We discussed some of the same problems we now face in the United States. Our country was established based on the quest of people looking for religious freedom, and a declaration of unalienable rights to the pursuit of happiness. But it seems now in question whether that freedom and those rights will be extended to all.
Thursday, September 20th
Seppe came in to say good morning, then they all left. We took our time to leave because we were going to meet Kevin and Greet in downtown Brussels for dinner (without kids) and we knew we were going to be out late. The bus for Brussels leaves just two doors down from us. It was a slow bus, but that meant that we saw more of the countryside… lots of stops between here and Brussels. We knew where we supposed to exit, but there were no signs to find it. I asked a woman behind us who didn’t speak much English, she spoke French. We got our message across and she explained (I think) that after she got off it would be nine more stops. Later, she said that the woman across from us was going to get off at our stop. That was good, so we just waited until she told us it was time.
I noticed a vignette as we sped down a broad Brussels avenue. A very old and decrepit woman was crossing the street. She was so stooped over that I doubted she could see the traffic coming her way. A man who had already crossed stopped, went back and stayed with her until she had navigated her way across the busy boulevard. You find good people all over the world.
Once in the old part of the city, we went into a church and walked around. The light from the high windows was lovely as it lighted up the arches of the space. I took a picture. I think it was the Notre Dame de Chapel, but I’m not sure.
Eventually we made our way to the main square where all the guild houses had been preserved and are gilded!
The ornate, gray building on the left is the Museum of Brussels. Rebecca and I toured it. It had some magnificent pottery, statues, and tapestry. One room was devoted to a large painting of the martyr of Saint Peter, done by the Flemish master, Pieter Coecke. The restoration took over a million dollars to complete, restoring it from dozens of torn bits and filling in missing parts.
Rebecca and I went on different missions. She wanted to visit some of the shops nearby while I was still on the quest to find a SIM card for the phone and the darkest beer in Belgium. I found a phone store, and got the same runaround: You can get a “top-off” card that will give a limited amount of data, then you can top it off online when needed. But it allows you only phone minutes in Belgium, and we’re going to need to call throughout Europe. Ironically, if have a Belgian address, you can get a card that allows calling continent-wide.
So off to find that beer. I found a quiet little pub just a half a block from the main square, called The Sister Bar.
Rebecca eventually joined me here at The Sister Bar where we were going to wait to meet Kevin and Greet and then go for dinner. While we were there, we met a couple from Germany and struck up a conversation. They own an antique car upholstery shop in Bonn. We asked them about issues they face as employers. They said that immigration is a big issue. Some of their best workers are immigrants. One is Syrian that they helped get papers and is the best employee they have. Another one, they said, they had to let go. “He couldn’t keep his hands off the girls” the woman said, “We warned our daughter not to go around the workers. They are good workers, but they bring their problems with them to our country. And our system of justice is too low (I think she meant too lenient) and they have an advocate that lets them ask for an extension and then they have time to leave.” (so they disappear and never get tried.)
We met up with Kevin and Greet. We walked to a pub for more drinks, then went to a nice restaurant and ate outside on a pleasant night that would turn out to be the last good weather for a while.
Friday, September 21st
Friday morning and it’s a rainy day. When I got up Kevin and Seppe were just getting suited up for the rain and ready to head out on bike. “It’s Mobility Day,” Kevin told me. Everyone has to either walk or bike to school. Seppe has a tiny peddle-less bike that he just pushes along. And off they went.
This will be a good day for Rebecca and me to hole up here, do laundry, write some letters, catch up on the blog, and get ready to visit Kevin’s parents tomorrow.
Seppe’s first “push bike”