The first week of our European Romance has tumbled by in a blur of new experiences, sometimes exhilarating or awe-inspiring or humbling, sometimes simply overwhelming. I have been alternately fascinated, charmed, and exhausted by the endless little differences I discover, one after another, as I move through the course of any given day. Although upon arriving in Amsterdam I was struck by the similarities to the US as much as the differences, many small everyday things require some getting used to. Aside from the obvious adjustments to an unfamiliar city and the language issue, there are a million tasks to learn how to do all over again: operating the laundry machines, using the gas stove, finding cash machines and using the currency, adapting to different electrical standards, learning how to buy groceries, etc. Even the light switches operate differently. I have entered an alternate universe where things look familiar, but everything is just a little different.
We began our trip with an unexpected delay, as we discovered that our seats on the plane had been reserved but tickets never actually purchased. I admit to staring at the agent in disbelief as we stood at the check in counter with our pile of suitcases after the four hour drive to the San Francisco airport.
A phone call to our employers in Belgium resulted in their immediate dismay at the problem and concerted efforts to help us from their end, but there was not much they could do owing to the nine-hour time difference. It was already late in the evening their time when they heard of our plight. We explored alternatives on our end per their recommendation, and found that there were seats available on the next day’s flight. We purchased the new tickets ourselves, which Natascha (COO of Nazooka/Anygma, Conal’s employer, and wife of Rudy, the company’s CEO) graciously promised to reimburse us for even though it meant added expense for them due to the late booking. We spent the night in a comfortable room not far from the airport, and decided this was excellent practice for living in the now and enjoying present reality, rather than struggling against it! After the new plans were finally in place, we were content to relax and wait another day.
As it turned out, because we had been physically at the airport 24 hours in advance of our flight, we had the opportunity to book the exit row seats in the front of the plane, the ideal location for Conal’s long legs. Conal enjoyed getting to stretch to his heart’s content in the acres of space in front of our seats. I was less happy, since the already ridiculously narrow seats were additionally constricted by a solid barrier between each seat, which housed flip-out tray tables. I needed more hip room, and would have preferred having a seat in front of me under which to stow personal items. With no seats in front of us, we were required to keep all our personal items in the overhead compartments. My carefully packed eye drops, snacks, water, reading material, neck pillow, and assorted other items could be accessed only by standing up and rummaging precariously over people’s heads, which I did not enjoy. Any items that I did brave fishing out had nowhere to go but my lap. Even if the seat weren’t so uncomfortable, I would have a hard time choosing to sit there again for many reasons. The trade offs were certainly worth it to Conal, but not to me. We shall have to get creative for the trip back.
Ultimately, we made it safely and were thrilled to arrive. Ten hours in the air, during which we passed far into the northern latitudes of our planet, at one point gazing out the window in fascination at a blindingly white sky and unending expanse of sea ice laced with cracks and scattered with bits of shredded fog, and during which it never got dark even though we had left San Francisco in the evening, gave me a heightened awareness that we really were flying over the surface of a round, partially frozen ball in space. Even boarding the plane while still on the ground in the US, I had the sense that we had entered new territory. I heard as much French and Dutch spoken on board as English. The crew on our KLM flight, decked out in formal blue suits, spoke beautiful English as well as their native Dutch (and who knows how many other languages). Flight announcements were given first in Dutch, then in English.
After disembarking, we walked through the large and swanky Amsterdam airport to baggage claim, where our luggage showed up without incident. Yay for direct flights. I was delighted and surprised that our passage through customs was as simple as showing our passports and stating the reason for our visit to a kindly looking gentleman who reminded me of Santa Claus. We passed beyond his simple booth after a very short wait in line. Walking freely into Europe, me for the first time, we looked at each other in surprise. “Was that it?” I said, having expected to encounter a more stringent process. Getting into Canada is harder than that. Rudy later told us that it is much more difficult going the other way. He said he is fingerprinted every time he enters the US! Sheesh.
The hour-long drive from the airport to Antwerp gave me a chance to get a look at the Dutch countryside, which was lushly green and largely given to farmland, with small towns here and there. And yes, windmills. The highways are not hugely different from their US counterparts, although the signs sometimes mystify me. Luckily, our gracious host for the drive was none other than Natascha’s mother, who lived for years in the US, who spoke English very well, and who was happy to chatter along with me about the sights along the way, graciously answering as I peppered her with one question after another. Passing from the Netherlands into Belgium, Margaret pointed out the border, where until recently one would be required to go through an international border crossing procedure. Now, thanks to the EU, it is no different than crossing from one state to another in the US.
The landscape is lush and green, frequently parted by canals and rivers, and utterly flat. I was reminded of the Skagit Valley in Washington State, although this of course is much bigger, stretching to the horizon. It took about an hour to reach Antwerp. Margaret dropped us off at our B&B in the city. We understood that our apartment would not be ready for a couple of days, and we certainly didn’t mind shacking up temporarily in a cozy spot where we’d be fed and cared for as we recovered from jet lag.
We spent a comfortable evening, and had a lovely breakfast in a common room that was delightfully furnished with art and precious-looking antiques and charming artworks, with a view overlooking the city from its seventh floor windows. Seven stories is tall in this city, where local ordinances dictate that all buidlings stay below a certain height to preserve the view of the stunning Cathedral of Our Lady in the city center.
The next day, Natascha and her mom arrived to pick us up, and told us that the apartment, which had been under renovation, was ready for us to move in–a day early! Woo hoo! We packed rapidly and headed over to discover what was to be our home for the summer. We arrived in a tree-shaded lane of antique shops and residences, and I immediately recognized the building from the photos we had been sent. In the small square at the end of the block, I glimpsed a large statue of some historic guy towering with his back to our view. I’ll have to get back to you on who the historic guy is and why he merits a monument. Our landlord, Frank, opened the door as we pulled to the curb.
Frank is a year younger than me, charming, gracious, and handsome. A native of Antwerp, he owns the building and the antique shop on the ground floor (which is called zero here) that is directly below our apartment (which is on what is called the first floor). Like most people here, he speaks beautifully accented English. Frank worked terribly hard to get the apartment ready, speeding up a major renovation project for us. After all that rush of effort, I think he enjoyed our wide-eyed ooohing and aaaaawing as he toured us around the place, gawking at the precious looking antiques and artwork everywhere. The spacious rooms, totaling over 130 square meters, are a quirky landscape of old-world charm with tall windows and ten-foot ceilings. Rough wood floors creak appropriately underfoot. Historic paintings and sculptures as well as modern pieces are artfully arranged in all directions. A brand new flat screen television is tucked into one corner. The bedroom and bathroom windows overlook an interior garden courtyard. One front window opens onto a small balcony overlooking the street, just large enough to accommodate a bistro-sized table and two chairs.
Frank amazed us with his attention to detail. The kitchen was stocked with necessities, fresh flowers and fruit stood on tables in lovely still life arrangements. Crisp white linens adorned the king sized bed. Everything was clean as a whistle with freshly painted walls throughout. The bedroom had been painted a stunning dark blue with white trim. We were thrilled. Natascha and Margaret approved heartily. They left us to settle in, saying goodbye with the European one-two-three cheek kiss that we are coming to enjoy from friends here.
Across the street, and next door to each other, are a small grocery and a cafe with sidewalk tables. Four blocks away is the main city square, called the Grote Markt, with the massive cathedral and a dizzying assortment of restaurants and shops and historic buildings. We are sticking close to home, thus far, beginning to discover the city and its rhythms through walks along the meandering streets and riverfront, as well as simply gazing at the street life from our windows or balcony. I have enjoyed a bit of hunkering down after the rush of preparations leaving California, the exhausting traveling, the strangeness of the time change, and adjusting to our new place. Next weekend, we will begin to explore, perhaps with a train ride to Brugge or Brussels.