We reached Brussels on time. It was a wet morning. The temperature was below 10 degrees. The man who had to meet us at the airport, Sukh Dev, our taxi contact, had not turned up outside the Relay bookstore at the airport like planned. Finally he came by running in 40 minutes after we reached.
It gave me time to look at the locals and other travelers. Many white skins and some blacks. A black family was right next to where I was and I saw the happy reunion of a dad and his three toddler sons and his wife. Then there were dozens and dozens of women who looked right out of the pages of fashion magazines and like models who walked the ramp for Yves St.Laurent or some big name like that. Can you imagine how out of shape- out of colour- out of league I must of felt! But I didn’t show itJ
Then after grabbing some hot “Kofie” @ Euro 3.10 a cup (that roughly translates to Rs.195/- a cup – Remind me never to crib about the cost of Coffee at Barista and Coffee Day when I get back) at one of the café’s at the airport we huddled into SukhDev’s Ceed and drove an hour to Braaschaat ( Pron. Braas –kaat) which was where we were to stay at our hosts.
On my way, I clicked a few pictures from a speeding Ceed that was whizzing the wet roads at 140 km per hour – the speed limit was 120 km / hour on the highway, but I swear the meter did swing past the upper limits a few times. The pictures are blurred – but I had learnt that it was ok to click blurred pictures from the Jim Carrey movie that I had watched in flight (Yes Man) . Oh the cars I saw- Citroens, volkswagons, peugots, porches and cute fiats, cuter volvos!
We got to Braaschaat with the help of a GPS which again is one marvel of a gizmo that never ceases to amaze me. Just like I was awed at the cell phone that I saw for the very first time when we were relocating to Mumbai in 1996. I wonder when we will have access to software like that in Chennai and Bangalore which is where I need to be on my own. It will be a boon to most women who are geographically challenge like I am.
Our hosts had a beautiful house. Green lawns, huge garden. Huger house . Great furniture. They live in style.
After our shower and relaxing a bit, we rode the bus to the railway station at Antwerp where we were to meet our host for coffee and lunch after work. We walked about and were showed around the city on foot.
Later when we got back, we had dinner at home. We spent a couple of hours engaged in a game of golf, tennis, bowling and boxing on the Wii. An amazing contraption that. We will probably get one of that soon.
Our host laid out a Puri and aloo sabji breakfast. And I had a big serving of the “tiramisu” that she had whipped up a few nights back, with fresh strawberry. Tiramisu is easy to make says Mrs.M (Our host). It had condensed milk, cocoa, coffee, biscuits, cheese and whipped cream. D.i.v.i.n.e.
The tulip garden was refreshing and relaxing. There was a riot of colors in all shades from the rainbow. I did not know that there were so many varieties of tulips. Some of them had two shades, some had jagged fiery edges and some were multiple layered. There was a mild natural perfume-y – If I may – aroma that filled your lungs with every breath you took. And the quiet. That’s something that is so unbelievable.
The scene looked like a page right out of an English novel – a castle in the backdrop, stretches of green lawns, birds and flowers. Perfect. The castle also reminded me of two movie scenes. One from Harry Potter. I half expected Hermoine, Ron and Harry running across the green lawns to the castle after meeting Hagrid! Or maybe Shrek and Donkey walk past with Fiona after rescuing her from the dragon. That’s how unreal it was.
If I walked 14 hectares of the garden I didn’t feel it. I went crazy with my camera. I wanted to capture it all on camera to share it with you. I wish I could bring back a slice of the ambience back to get you to live the moment.
When we got back it was well past lunch time. Mrs. M quickly stir fried some vegetables and heated some ‘parathas’. The yoghurt was firm and we finished it off with a Magnum- double chocolate!
I worked on the cross trainer for 25 minutes. After all I had to work out some part of the calories. Then walked to the local supermarket with Mrs.M. Browsed vegetables as I slowly walked down the aisles. Artichokes, Asparagus, Broccoli, Parsley, capsicum in orange and double shades, coconuts that were almost round, baby sized round red radishes, baby cauliflowers, baby carrots, baby everything! Some vegetables that I don’t even know the names of. all of the labels are written in dutch. BTW, I have done my vocabulary building in dutch too – Noord is North, Oost is East, Zuid is south and thankfully West is the same. “Te Hoop” means For sale and “Te Huur” means for hire.
The roads are unbelievably clean, quiet and lined with trees of different colors. The traffic is so organized. There are cyclists everywhere in all age groups. There are cycle tracks throughout on the roads and walkways indicated by a different colored paint. No one honks. There is no chance of crossing roads until you approach a pedestrian crossing and only if the traffic signal allows you to.
Oh I could go on.
Later in the evening, our hosts treated us to an Italian dinner for their son’s 21st birthday. We opened a bottle of champagne and toasted him at home. Then drove up to the river front to an Italian restaurant called Verona. The others chose to eat pastas and squid, GSR and I ordered for a Pizza Vegetariane and washed it down with Sprite.
More and more later!
A bright and warm sun greeted us this morning. The funny thing about here is, it is bright and sunny and the temperature is hovering at 15 degrees and then the next thing you notice is the suns gone behind the cloud and its gotten crispy chill. So one has to always carry a warm coat or a sweater or atleast some scarf to wrap around your neck if you want to continue being out. The home is heated so it really does not feel uncomfortable.
This morning Mrs.M made us some toast and omelets.. We had a choice of cheese slices, butter, some each-mango preserve and some orange marmalade. Did you know that Dundee in Scotland is known for its marmalades. I found out when I read the fine print on the bottle! It being a Sunday, we sat around and had a relaxed breakfast.
Midmorning our host announced that it was almost beer time so they helped themselves to some Belgian beer while we settled for some tea before we walked up to Lucy Chang's for lunch. Lucy Chang is a quaint little Chinese restaurant that we could walk up to. We had veggie dumplings and fried rice with Thai green curry. The rest of them ate with chopsticks. I did not even venture a try.
Tomorrow Mrs. M and I plan to go the village square to visit the Monday market or drive up to Bruges, which is in the north west of Belgium. It’s an old medieval looking city it seems. I am quite looking forward to be on the canal boat and take a city tour of Bruges. Viola! That’s about it!
Day 4 was a warm day- by Belgium standards. The maximum temperature was 20 degrees C. You still needed a scarf around your neck and a jacket to keep you comfortable. It was just Mrs. M and me the whole day. After an all bran flakes breakfast, we walked up to the Braschaat village square for the Monday market. It was a five minute walk from Frilinglei, the street on which Mrs. M’s house was. It was a beautiful morning (I have learnt to compliment the weather now) and the green tree lined streets looked lovely.
The trees through out Antwerp and places that I have driven by in Belgium are all trimmed off the lower branches. So the trees look like they have been taken out of a mould and planted. They look similar- neatly trimmed and green, interspersed with trees with reddish brown leaves or cherry blossoms. Very picturesque.
So the Monday market turned out to be a place where the locals came to pick everything ranging from plants , flowers, cheese, meat, cookies, chocolates, clothes and other knick knacks. Some come on bicycles, most come on foot. It is a common sight to see older people bicycling here. People over 60’s casually are on their own on cycles picking stuff they need. Some even wheel their grand children to the market in their little prams. Its common practice for young women to be at work leaving their children at their grandparents, Mrs. M says.
We walked about the market for half an hour and headed home. We had a big day ahead of us – a big beautiful warm sunshiny day. We drove to Brugge (Pronounced – Broozh) that was 80 odd kilometers from Brasschaat. So with the help of the GPS, we headed for the old medieval town of Brugge in Mrs. M’s Volkswagon Golf.
The drive to Brugge took us about an hour and a half. On our way we passed windmills, dairy farms, and many cars with bicycles in their boot. I found out that people drive to other towns and suburbs and always carry their cycles with them. They park someplace in the city and cycle around. A fun way to discover any place if the weather permits I guess. I can’t imagine doing that in Chennai. But now I am able to appreciate why tourists from other countries dare to travel backpack with minimal clothing, road maps and no plans. I can’t think of Indians doing anything so adventurous. We need at least 4 pairs of trousers and five shirts for a week long stay. And we won’t leave town till our tickets are confirmed and we know that we have room reservations in a hotel if we did not know anyone else that we can stay with in the city.
At the town of Brugge we took a tour of the city in a little yellow bus. The conductor of the tour had a good sense of humour and he kept adding his cute anecdotes and funny one liners that I am sure he has tried out with various other groups in the past.
Brugge is known for its 14th century brewery, a diamond polishing house and lace making. So you can imagine that there were shops that had displayed lace work and tapestry work. We took a boat ride down the canal around town and sight saw the same ancient 14th century buildings that we had when we toured in the bus. It was even more beautiful and scenic with the water backdrop. Some of the buildings are really old. The boat tour was half an hour long. The man who took us on the ride looked like a secret service agent. He could speak fluently in three languages – French, Dutch and English.
After our canal ride, Mrs. M and I ate a big bowl of French fries, waffles with strawberry and fresh cream and coffee and drove back home!
Day 5 – Shopping at Wijnegen and Dinner at the Pump House!
The title says it all doesn't it:-)
Wijnegen ( Pronounced – Winey -gen) was a mall of sorts that had a whole bunch of stores. Mrs.M suspected that I would like to look around and she wisely suggested that she drop me off at the mall and then pick me up in two hours. There were three floors in the mall and each floor had some 200 stores spread over 15 thousand square feet area.
When Mrs. M got back I had successfully gone one round of the 3rd floor alone – which is where I started. I browsed a few shops in detail and skipped many of the branded shops that sold clothes. I think living with Ramesh has mellowed my splurging instincts a bit – I am sure he won't agree. He still thinks I buy things on an impulse and that I should curb my spending. But I know better. I picked a few knick knacks and sat at the identified bench outside the first store where I began my journey.
We stopped at an Italian joint in the mall where they charged us on the measure of food that we served on to our plates from the buffet. Another very smart thing to do,. That way you ensured that you did not serve more than what you will consume and there is no wastage of food. We have a lot to learn from these Europeans.
We had coffee at the Icon Bar. You have to be there to believe this place. The interiors of this place look like a church. There are thousands of idols from old churches and chapels that have been brought down that line the shelves, mantle pieces and walls of the bar. People sit around smoking , drinking and eating here. From here we drove up to The Pump House. It is at the entrance of the “port of Antwerp”. It has been around since 1920 and was responsible for pumping dry the largest dry-dock of Europe. Now they serve French cuisine in a very trendy and utter romantic interior setting.
We drove back home after an utterly sumptuous French dinner the name of which I can't even recall! The butler/ head waiter took my coat when I entered the restaurant and wore it for me when I left! Bon Nuit! (That is good night in French for the uninitiated:-) )
Day 6 – Shopping at Zeeman, Ikea and Movie at Metropolis!
Well! Another day of shopping. Are you kidding me? I have people who want gifts back from the EU!
The day before, along with the daily newspaper there were brochures of shops that had announced special prizes on some stuff that I wanted to look at, so Mrs. M walked me up till the local Zeeman and again like the other day, left me fending for myself. I knew my way back home – oh I live like a local now! – And so I assured her that I will reach home
on my own. The fact I am writing to you will tell you that I got home safe!
Anyway, this Zeeman place had everything- from clothes to stationary. So I picked appropriate gifts for all I wanted to take back gifts for and got home around lunch. After a lunch of leftovers and parathas, we left for the IKEA store. The Ikea was such a nice store – everything from kitchen things to bedrooms to floors to gardens they sell it all!
We also stopped at an Indian store to pick some food and masalas. Mrs. M is having 9 people over for dinner tomorrow evening. The men are coming back from Ghent after the conference and we have a couple of more people who will join us for dinner.
We went to an all Jew locality at Antwerp– the ultra orthodox, Hasidic Jews were originally the first diamond traders in Belgium before the Gujarathis took over it seems. I spotted a few on their bicycles (yet again!). They have these "side curls" called "peyot" that hang lose from their hair. It is meant to remind them not to reap from the corners of their fields- that is to be kind to the poor it seems. The men wear black coats, and stockings and the women shave their heads when they marry and wear wigs. So there are a lot of wig shops in that locality.
Now we head to the movies- to watch Jennifer Aniston and Ben Affleck in "He is not That into you". Mrs. M made the bookings online and we have to be there at 7.45. We plan on a pizza hut dinner tonight. Maybe wash it down with some Australian homemade ice-cream 🙂
Now I have a little explaining to do with the bags of shopping that I accomplished today. Well, after all its not everyday that you come to this part of the world do you? After all its just that once in a blue moon kinda spree that one goes on… Boy did it feel good!
Skipped my half hour on the cross trainer. But that the heck!
Dinner turned out to be a super duper hit. The first thing you notice about these people is that they turn out at the scheduled time – Everyone was home at 7.30 sharp. Both the families that were invited, carried beautiful floral arrangements for Mrs. M. I suspect one of the arrangements could have easily cost a 100 Euro. But the fact of the matter is, the floral will remain fresh longer than it would in India. And they are a sight! So they are worth that.
Both the families were natives of Belgium and they spoke Flemmish. So you can imagine how much of the conversation I was really tuned in to. One of the guests was on a weight watchers diet and has lost 20 kgs lately .So every time he ate something he calculates in 'points' since he is only allowed to consume 29 points in a day.
So when they arrived, we offered a choice of wine / beer / whiskey and we toasted to good times and long friendships. There was a lot of talk about work, people they collectively disliked and loved, some tongue in cheek humour and good spirited camaraderie. The guest appreciated the variety of dishes served. The surprise was when I saw them help themselves to rasam in a cup, twice! They liked the parathas, the vegetables and the dessert was a hit!
After a lot more rib tickling funny recalls of episodes from the past that usually get talked about in such occasions, we called it a night when they left at half past ten.
Mrs. M and I stayed up to put all the used dishes to wash and leftovers in the fridge (thank god there will be no need to cook again today).
The next mail will have details of our trip back to India, movie(s) that I caught up in-flight and more shopping at the airport (hopes!). I suppose that this is last email from here.
So its a wrap! Thanks for reading and being a part of my vacation at Antwerp! You can count on me for updates (No unsubscribe options available unfortunately) on my next holiday:-)