Sunday, February 23, 2014

Reunion in Brussels

Tom spent a week in NYC earlier in the month. Since I didn't have a lot on my calendar, I contacted a friend from Belgium days who is back living there. Ruth was up for a visit with only a week or so advance notice. As luck would have it, another friend, Trudie, would be traveling with her husband to Belgium at the same time. The stars certainly aligned for me and I had to go. I hadn't realized it had been nearly 5 years since I'd been back - July 2009.

After investigating different train and plane options, I chose to take the high speed trains from Zurich to Brussels by way of Paris. (There is a train directly from Basel to Brussels, but it departs later and takes longer so it would have meant an evening arrival.) My choice put me in Brussels mid-afternoon.

The tricky part of this trip was arriving in one Paris train station and leaving out of another. There were about 45 minutes in between to allow for a Metro ride between the stations. I decided in advance I would just take a taxi and eliminate the stress of getting on the wrong Metro or going the wrong way. What I didn't count on was the possibility of a taxi strike! As soon as I exited Paris Gare du Nord, I knew something was wrong. There were no taxis in the area of the taxi stand. There were lots of folks wearing leather jackets and helmets. I was immediately approached by one who luckily spoke English very well. He informed me that there were no taxi cars in Paris due to a manifestation (strike)! However, all was not lost. He would take me to Gare de Lyon with his motorcycle! Yikes. That was not in my plan. I contemplated for just a few seconds. Did I have a real choice? Did I have time go back inside and try to figure out the Metro trip, buy my ticket and take the ride before my next train left? I didn't take that risk. I took the other risk and went on the motorcycle! 

First, the driver gave me a hair net to wear and then a helmet and a pair of gloves. He put my shoulder bag in his "trunk" where the helmet had been. He climbed on and put my small roller suitcase between his legs. There were shock cords to strap something on top of his "trunk", but I guess he didn't think my small case warranted that treatment. Following his instructions, I climbed on behind and grabbed the handholds. I was as ready as I was ever going to be. I told him I had never ridden a motorcycle before and was scared. He reassured me that he would go slowly. I have never been so conflicted about seeing a red traffic light. I wanted to get to the station and make my connection, but a red light also meant he had to stop! If you've been to a European city, you know motorcycles like to weave through traffic. Yup. He did that. When we were stopped, he went between the lines of cars so we could be in the front. I could have reached out and touched the cars on either side, but believe me I did not let go! When we were in the clear, he did go plenty fast - I do wonder how fast he would have gone without me in back. He was nice enough and did get me to the next station in time - all for the bargain price of 40 €. I only had a 5 bill and a few 50's. Oh, too bad. All the change he could come up with was 7 so it actually cost me 43€. It was quite the adrenalin rush, but I survived.

Because time was of the essence, I did not stop for a photo op. However, when I arrived at Gare de Lyon, I knew I had enough time to catch my connection so I paused for a picture. Some train stations are really pretty. 


I was very pleased that the Belgians were more caring and their taxi drivers were working as normal. It was a relief to finally arrive at Ruth's apartment. 

What were we going to do in Brussels? No big plans. Just catch up with each others' lives, eat Belgian food and soak in the beauty of the Grand Place. Nothing else required.

Dinner on my first night included another friend from years gone by, Nancy. She was our very faithful cat sitter for Mozart. We're trying to convince her to come and stay with Denali this summer.

Ruth and I headed down to the Grand Place, one of my very favorite places in the world.  Having been to lots of other European capitals, there is nothing else like it. I can't get enough of it. We did wander around that area and noticed many things were the same, but Starbucks and Subway have made their way to Brussels - did not patronize either. 

gold has been shined up nicely

it was windy!

panorama makes the buildings look bowed, but you get the idea

this end would benefit from cleaning

Since I think these buildings are so amazing (they date back to the 1400's - being rebuilt in the late 1600's), I have to include some close ups of the detail work.


I am not tall, just saying...........

We connected with Trudie at the Grand Place as well. None of us can get enough of it.

We did have to see whether Brussels most famous citizen, Mannequin Pis, was wearing a special costume. We were not disappointed. He is advertising the emergency phone number for the area: 112 (similar to the US 911).

I did have a few shopping plans while in Brussels: their famous Speculoos (similar to gingerbread), a waffle or two and of course, some chocolate (yes, to bring back to Switzerland!). Walking around, we saw shops displaying all the different choices of waffle toppings. 

what should I choose?

Two days in Brussels = two waffles. Just a speck of self control the second time to hold back on the chocolate. I was also going to eat it while walking and did not want to wear the chocolate!

Bruxellois = my favorite


they're happy -  waffles and hot chocolate on the way

Wandering through the Galleria St. Hubert, Europe's first indoor shopping arcade, we counted chocolate shops. Now I can't remember the exact number, but I think it was 7 and it is a very small shopping area. Belgians know what sells!

The best part of the time in Brussels was being with good friends and making some new memories.
Trudie and Kevin

Trudie and guess who?

my hosts, Ruth and Michael

Did you know Smurfs are Belgian? But they're not all small and blue! Who knew?

Before leaving Belgium, I did make time to go to the local grocery store to buy meat to take back to Switzerland because it is so much cheaper. I was also able to find the smoked duck for the duck-apple tart appetizer that my family loves. I froze the meat in advance so it would be able to make the trip back to Switzerland. I was well within the allowed limit but no one checked anyway. 

After a very fun, but short visit, I was on my way back to Switzerland. This time I was lucky enough to get a ride between Paris stations INSIDE a taxi. And guess what? It only 
cost 18 €! I guess that motorcycle wasn't a bargain (I had realized that already). I did have time to take a picture of motorcycle taxis. You have to use your imagination to put me on one.

Thanks, Brussels, for staying as beautiful as I remember. I'll be back! Au revoir!