Belgium Part 2

Friday, September 21

When Kevin came in after work Friday, he handed me a letter from Mobile Viking; I got my SIM card! (I wasn’t sure it would arrive before we were to leave.)  I spent about an hour getting the SIM card installed and getting the account set up. The phone sputtered and chirped with a bunch oh notifications and updates while I explored so the features and options  it has.

Friday night, Kevin and Greet invited Anami (Greet’s mother) and Jan (her second husband (pronounced “Young”) over for mussels. I watched Kevin juggle five separate boiling pots on the new stove. Each of one of us got our own pot of mussels, and he prepared a special dish for Rebecca, falafels.

Anami (full name Ana Marie) lives nearby in the center of Londerzeel. She moved here from a smaller village when Greet was in high school. She had a day care for about six families until she had to quit due to back trouble.

Jan worked as a crane operator for 43 years. He is also retried. He tells me he worked on smaller cranes, only 40 to 70 meters tall. “Sheesh!” I exclaim, and nobody seemed to understand that word but they get that I’m amazed. “That’s like a 20 story building! Did you have to climb up everyday, like on a ladder?”
“Oh, yes,” he tells me, “but the worst part is when you have to go pee!” Jan is virile and rugged but has a kind and caring manner. Later I notice that he takes Jolein to the changing table and changes her diapers without skipping a beat.

I ask at dinner what the big businesses are here in Londerzeel. Sarens Contractors is a major construction company that employs 4,500 people here in the Londerzeel region. Palm Brewery also operates locally and is a very popular beer in Belgium.

But most people who live here, like Greet and Kevin, work in the big cities around here.

Anami and Jan tell us that is one of the big problems is that some refugees come in and get social support that locals can’t get themselves.  It’s not fair, they say.

I’ve been trying to get get an idea of people’s perception of the Trump Administration, so I ask, “So do you sort of agree with the Trump ideology that wants to close the borders and keep others out?”

By the look in their eyes as they sort of smirk at each other, they tell us that he is something of a joke around here. “Maybe he has some things right, but he has insulted his friends and is invited in the enemies.” Anami says.  They talk about how Trump had been here just recently for the NATO conference and caused quite a stir.

I noticed that Kevin’s reaction was also a bit negative. “What do you think of him,” I ask him.

“Some people compare him to a young Hitler. I think that may be a bit too radical. But you have to consider what he is doing. He is trying to divide everyone.”  Kevin says that there are many people who need to escape difficult or dangerous conditions. “None of us should have to solve the whole problem, but we all must do something.”

After dinner, we sit around the TV and Kevin puts on some old MTV videos.

Anami tells us that she sings in a local choral group. We could hear them the next week. No, well be gone, we tell her.

Maybe we could go to hear them practice, we ask? We’ll see.

Saturday, September 22

Saturday morning, Seppe had been sick all night. But Greet thought that maybe she could stay at home with him and meet us later in the day at Kevin’s parents’ house, about 90 minutes east, near the Dutch border.

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Under gray skies, we drive east to Kevin’s parents’ house near the Dutch border along a freeway lined with wind mills.

Kevin’s parents, Jean-Pierre and Sabine, live in Geilek, a town a bit smaller than Winters, (6000 inhabitants) and work nearby. Jean-Pierre works at a hospital in Holland, (3 miles away). Sabine used to work at a Dutch dress shop there but now manages a landscaping company here in eastern Belgium.

Their house is recently built, two story and what we are noticing to be of the very clean, sharp, and modern style.  They gave ideas to an architect and he designed it for them.  Sabine’s dad built most of the house out of bricks and they did some of the work, like painting and landscaping.

The back yard has simple landscaping accented by colorful life-sized animal statues, like a rainbow colored zebra.

Soon after we arrived, Jean-Pierre and Kevin started setting up for the bicycle ride they had planned for the afternoon. Jean Pierre let me use his gear, riding shorts, jersey and shoes and his new bike. I got to the garage and he informed me that the sleeves (I thought were for my legs) were actually for my arms! I got on the helmet and he presented me with a heart monitor that was connected to the bike. Top of the line Garmin.

These guys are not your typical weekend warriors. Kevin is in training for a four day 600k mountain bike trip in the Alps next summer. Jean-Pierre did the infamous Mont Ventoux ride 20 years ago (6000 feet climb) and three times since. Nowadays he typically logs in on his Strava account about 250k a week.  He actually rides to work to a different country daily (Holland) about a 20 mile round trip, then he puts in about 100k on the weekend.

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The bike I’m riding is his brand new 4,500 Euro Canyon bike (German make) and is only 7k kilos light! I mounted the bike feeling a bit rusty. I haven’t ridden much since my stroke in April. Add I start out,  gear shift levers are oh so subtle, just a touch on the raised lever to shift up, slight press on the flat one to go down. I’m doing all this as we maneuver out of town through cobblestone streets and narrow lanes out of Geilek.20180922_124228

After a while, I realize that this is probably the finest bike I’ve ever ridden. So light and crazy responsive! And, I’m actually keeping up! I look down at the Garmin and see that we’re cruising at between 30 and 35km/hr. Not exactly sure what that computes to in mph, but it’s pretty close to 20mph, which is basically the my top level riding speed on my (relatively speaking) clunker at home.

We ride through beautiful tree-lined streets, nicely paved bike-ways away from traffic, next to open fields, then we find our way to the King Albert Canal that leads eventually, Kevin tells me, to all the way to Antwerp.

The waterway slides along parks, boat launches, fishing docks, and locks.
Jean Pierre rides up to me and places his hand on my back, just below my neck, to speak to me. In my limited (5 years?) of riding, I don’t remember anyone ever doing that while riding. I don’t have the skill or confidence to do reach across to a rider like that, and I would be afraid to reach out to touch someone at 18 to 20mph would make one of us to lose balance. But his hand makes us somehow become more stabilized. He asks me how I like the bike I’m  riding. “It’s better than my bike at home,” I say.

 

I notice that he and Kevin reach out to brace each other like that throughout the ride. I wonder if it’s a cultural thing here in Europe, or maybe a father-son type of gesture.  Maybe  it’s something that cyclists at a far superior level than I’m familiar with, do as a camaraderie thing, or a show-of-skill thing. In any case, I think I’ve graduated to something new, something refreshing.

After about 45 minutes of peddling, Jean Pierre asks me if I’m thirsty. “No, I’m OK,” I reply.

“Oh, we were going to stop for a beer,” he says.

“In that case, I think I am thirsty!”

We pedal up and wind our way over an overpass and onto a wide patio of a large brick pub on the river.  The weather looks like it may rain soon, so we park the bikes under an umbrella,  and we go inside for the beer. I continue my search for the darkest beer in Belgium.

This is the place, they tell me, that Kevin worked as a waiter when he was going to college. He introduced us to Johan, who is the manager. We sit near a window so we can watch the bikes.

After a while, it starts to really pour outside. Kevin pulls out an app on his phone that shows a rain cell going directly over us. We decide to have another beer and wait it out.

Jean-Pierre is a hospital administrator for several hospitals in southern Holland. He’s Rebecca’s age, three years younger than I am.  He plans to retire in a year and a half.

I ask him to explain exactly what he manages at the hospital.  He explains that he’s in charge of making sure that patients see the right specialists at the right time.  He is also in charge of employee in-service education.  “So, if a patient has a problem with their care, whom do they complain to?” I ask.

“To me,” he replies.

I sit back and think about how pleasant all these bicycle trails are compared to the road we have to share with cars around Yolo County.  ‘Who pays for all of these great bicycle trails,” I ask them? “The government, the local taxes that we pay,” Kevin says. “You saw the numbers on the bike roads. You can go on the Internet and plan your trips and know exactly how far your trip is going to be.

“It’s all planned by a regional council, just like the auto highways,” Jean-Pierre explains. “It helps everybody by taking cars of the road.”

After about 30 minutes the weather breaks up and we decide to ride home.  On the final leg home, we wind through several tall stands of what look to me to be eucalyptus trees.  I’m a bit nervous about the seed pods all over the wet pavement, pinging as we trade over then.

They had warned me about “Devil’s Mountain.”  Belgium is so flat that I couldn’t  imagine that it was much of a hill.  As we approached it, I started fiddling with the gears, consequently falling back a bit.  Kevin and Jean-Pierre instead stood on the pedals and actually accelerated up the hill. Hopelessly left behind, I tried to at least keep up a steady pace.

At the top of the hill, they were waiting for me; Kevin was taking a video.  “Waiting for the old man?” I asked.

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Cresting at Devil’s Mountain

We took the rest of the ride at a moderate pace.  It’s about as fast as I’m comfortable riding on narrow roads, winding through small villages, but I suspect that they’re holding back on my account.

When we get back, Sabine’s mom had come over to see her great-grandchildren. She (Gustav Prartoens) lives a few miles away in Hoeselt. She speaks a dialect of Dutch, so when we ask her a question, it goes through Kevin to Sabine to Gustav.

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Four generations of females, Gustaf, Sabine, Greet, and Jolein

Jean-Pierre had been waiting for this opportunity to give his grandson a present. He pulls a wrapped gift off the top of a cabinet and hands it to Seppe.  Seppe struggles with unwrapping it then finally gets it open. It’s a miniature cycling jersey. Seppe is pleased, but a bit confused. They are trying to explain the reason for the jersey while Jean-Pierre goes outside for something else.

 

Within moments, he came back rolling a tiny bicycle.

Seppe’s eyes lit up. He grabbed the bike and rolled it back onto the patio out the back door. Jean-Pierre takes his shoulders and gently guides him. I realize that I’m watching Seppe ride a real pedal bike for the first time. Seppe manages to make a big arc around the damp slate porch, then comes back and nearly hits a post.

Rebecca: We had Champagne or beer while we visited a bit more. Greet and Seppe came in and the volume of the house went up considerably.  I played with the kids in the sunken living room and Greet joined me.

Eventually Great-Grandma left and the guys took showers.  Then Jean-Pierre came down and started cooking.  He made mashed potatoes that he added cooked spinach, cream, butter, and cheese.  It was very tasty.  He also made me some vegge patties that were good.

We had good conversation  around the table, and I liked that the kids ate dinner with us.  

Once dinner was over we all sat in the living room and watched (not really) Seppe’s cartoons. He gets two a night before bed.  Sabine took him up and put him to bed.  Jolein stayed a bit longer because of her nap.  Jolein went next.  Then Jean-Pierre’s sister (Harmena) and her husband came to meet us.  We visited for about an hour–her English is very good–before her husband had to go to work.  He works at a Phillip Morris company that makes filters for cigarettes.  They must have to make them around-the-clock, I wonder to myself. Harmina stayed and we talked for quite some time.

Sunday, September 23

This morning after breakfast, we talked about going to the nearby town of Tongeren, the oldest city in Belguim. It was founded around 15 BC as a Roman fortress.  Under the basilica, ruins from dwellings from the first through third centuries AD were found.

We take a rain-soaked drive on narrow roads and find the small town, dominated by the towering church that was begun in the year 1240 and not finished until 1536.  This UNESCO site is 64 meters tall, and admired as one of the most beautiful Gothic buildings in Belgium.

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Rebecca, Kevin, and Seppa on the rain-soaked streets of Tongeren in front of the Basilica

We had planned to tour the old city more, but it was so wet we decided to go into a local pub instead.  I found a very dark red ale called Scotch something. It is one of my favorite so far.

We went back to Sabine and JP’s house.  They fixed a nice late lunch of various types of pasta for us, and then, as is the custom in Belgium on a Sunday, we watched the bicycle races on TV. Today the team time trials for both men and women were concluding.  Team USA had set the mark for the best men’s time, and, who else, Belgium was the one to beat it!

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We gave our farewells and loaded everything back into the two cars we brought.  Kevin and I in one car, Rebecca and Greet and the kids in the other car.

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Monday, September 24

We got a late start today. This is a local holiday and the entire town is closed down for  a city-wide fair.  After a late breakfast, Greet drove Rebecca and me to her mom’s house while Kevin bicycled with Seppe in the child seat of the bike.

From Anami and Jan’s house, we walked about 6 blocks to the center of town where a city-wide fair was being held.  The old square with the tall cathedral and cobblestone streets was dressed up in colorful booths, food stalls of various types and small carnival rides.  We saw a group of scottish bagpipes, an African dancing group and various political groups giving out literature.

I ran across the Green Party chapter of Londerzeel.  They, of course, are interested in environmental issues first and foremost.  What things would they specifically push for here in Londerzeel?  They want to make it easier for bicyclists to use the roads in order to reduce the number of car trips generated by cars.  They want to restrict cars from certain parts of the city. How would you do that, I ask,  They would make the streets narrower, reduce car parking while increase bike parking.  This is such a different perspective than our parking issues we face now in Winters.

What I hadn’t understood when I met Conney Moons last Tuesday as she gave out literature at the door was that she was not running as an individual, but rather as part of a group that would work together as a team.

At another political stand I ran across the team that is now in charge.  I had a chance to meet the current Mayor of Londerzeel.  The mayor, or Bergermeister, is Nadia Simiate Lijsttrekker. Daughter of a Moroccan immigrant, she had been energetic in getting her group together in 2010 and elected in 2012, and then rising to the head of her party in 2015, thus becoming the mayor. She seems younger looking than her impressive resume would imply. She is running for reelection, and I expect great things to come from this young leader.

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Nadia is part of the NVA group, which is center-right in its politics.  It is fiscally conservative, but socially a bit more liberal.  Sounds like the CW (Charley Wallace) party.

When I asked Nadia what the big issues, I heard some of the same that I had heard from other local parties.  Her group is interested in security, mobility and Identity. The identity part is keeping their Dutch roots.

When I asked her what her first thing she wants to change, she pointed to the cobblestones I was standing on.  “See that?” she asked me.  “That is the problem.”  She went on to explain that it’s hard to bicycle or drive on the cobblestones, but it is expensive to change them.

Well, who am I to say?  I came to Europe to see the cobblestones! But it’s an issue I hadn’t considered.

While Woody talked with the political parties that were set up, we wandered on to see the animals. We saw miniature ponies and lively horses, and we stopped to watch them judge some beautiful Belgians. I don’t know which ones won but they were handsome,  all of them (except I don’t like the way they dock their tails).

We came upon a secondhand seller, and I observed Jan and Anami negotiating with the seller over a plastic helicopter for Seppe. They finally settled on a toy ambulance that lighted up with event lights and a siren.

 

In a few minutes we came across a fundraising event in the Police and Fire Department building. They were selling pancakes and beer, sort of a cross between the Winters Chamber beer booth and the Rotary Pancake Breakfast. I spied my counterpart flipping pancakes and took a picture.

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We went over to the police side of the facility.  There was a man who was sort of a security officer. He had a display that showed the hardware that everyone should have in their houses.  “Most people think that if they have an alarm then they’re OK.  They might catch the thief, but they might never get their stuff back,” said the officer.

I asked them if they could say who they supported in the upcoming election.

They said that they cannot speak as a group, but that they can talk as individuals  They are for the LVN party, the one that is in power now.  They said that they think that they have a good track record and that they want to .

They are also part of  the NVA party. They explain hoe they are part of the separatist movement, wanting to take Flanders out of Belgium. “So do you agree with the right-wing ideology” of the US now, I ask.

They talk about how President Trump came to Belgium about a two months ago and the general consensus was that he seemed to do his best to insult everyone here.

Londerzeel Assistant Chief of Police Van de Broed said, “We believe in protecting against invasions  from foreign powers. We all worked together and formed strong friendship and support during the Second World War. This is what our party is about, protection and security. We look toward the president of the United States as a world leader, the most important leader of the world. But this last send like he doesn’t even think about what he says before he says it. We expected him to help us.

“He seems to think everything is black and white,” the security officer says. “He thinks everything has a simple answer.”

Later on, a man with a kindly face and deep, penetrating eyes who had heard us talking about Trump approached us. I detected a Yiddish overlay to his Dutch accent. “This man is very dangerous.  He has far too much power.” Apparently, not everyone thinks he’s a joke.

So far, those that I thought would side with the US Presidency have not done so.  I’m really trying to keep an open mind.

Later on, Anami and Jan invited us over for dinner. They prepared a vegetarian dinner, especially for Rebecca. We admired  her orchids along the windowsill in the dining room.

After dinner, Amami invited us to come down to hear their choir group practice for an upcoming concert.

Greet drove us to a small village, about 6 miles away near the Palm Beer factory to a small pub where about 25 people were already assembled and rehearsing their first songs.

“Goodnight Sweetheart,” “Mussels and Cockles,” and “Simple Gifts” were some of the old standard English songs they practiced. It was interesting to hear their near perfect pronunciation of English and at the same time know it is just that.

They sang  some  Scandinavian songs, some African songs and some I did not recognize.

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The music was a sweet and tender way to end our week in Belgium. Simple and generous gifts!
Kevin would take us before dawn at six to Düsseldorf in the morning and get back in time to get to work by 11am.

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