Northern Europe Expedition 26 June to 15 August 2014
Part #1 - Pre-cruise visits to Belgium and Paris
Part 2: July 6 to 20, 2014 - Iceland and Norway
Part 3: July 20 to August 3, 2014 - The Baltic Sea
Part 4: August 3 to 15, 2014 - The British Isles
26 - 29 June 2014 - Arrived in London Heathrow on the 26th after an 8.5 hour direct flight from Vancouver and transferred to my hotel near Terminal 5 to work on e-mails, have dinner and sleep 14 hours. I managed to find a free bus at the airport that dropped me about a block from my hotel.
The next day, after working on e-mails until about noon, I took the free bus back to the airport and boarded my roughly 1 hour and 20 minute flight for Brussels, Belgium, where I was met by my girlfriend, SB, from 22-28 years ago, from the time when I lived and worked in Belgium, and it was like no time had passed at all - though she was on her second (and final, she said) husband, remembering that I had left Belgium for good just days after attending her wedding to her first husband. We caught up on our news on the way to her house outside Brussels, out in the countryside south-east of Brussels, after picking up some fresh bread at the baker's. She made dinner and we sipped champagne while waiting for her current husband, TJ, to arrive from his work week in Paris.
On the Saturday, after a morning walk with their two female golden retrievers, aged 13 and 6, We then head off mid-morning for Bruges, a UNESCO heritage site in Flanders, found parking and took a bus into the pedestrian center. After grabbing a quick lunch of croques and salad near the market square, we followed along the canals on foot, photographing each other and the ancient buildings (see photos below), ending up at the Beguinage at which point it had started to drizzle and we were near the parking lot anyway. We then headed back to their part of the country in Wallonia getting stuck in slow traffic and went out for a lovely dinner at a nearby restaurant where we all had fish.
On Sunday morning, we took another long walk in the countryside with the dogs and after a quick, healthy lunch of salad and potatoes, headed off for Louvain-la-Neuve to visit the newish Hergé museum - Hergé was the creator of Tintin. Then I was dropped off at my modest hotel near the centre of Brussels, literally steps from the Grande Place, and texted another old friend, FN, to let him know I had arrived. F then met me for a late dinner at a snack place across from my hotel. Again it was years since we had last seen each other face to face and the in-between years were erased in an instant.
30 June 2014 - I had set aside today to explore my old haunts in Brussels, but I first went out to the Grande Place to photograph its buildings and the Mannekin Pis, and then on to a hotel near Place Ste. Catherine to say bonjour to a third friend, MV, whom I had known from my Belgian past. Unfortunately, I was told, Monday was his day off so I was asked to return on Tuesday after 3 p.m. I then continued on my tourist walk of central Brussels, photographing happily and arrived on Rue de la Loi where my goal was to look up colleagues I used to work with at the European Commission. I gave the concierge five names, found that two of them had retired but he found me the phone numbers of the other three. As it was nearing lunch time, I was able to leave a voice message with one, JM, but the other two did not pick up. I then walked on to the Parc Cinquantinaire and had a picnic lunch and read. Then, after 2pm, I headed back to the Commission and tried the three numbers again. The first number was still asking me to leave a voice message, at the second number I was told my former colleague, AMW, would be back at work tomorrow and at the third number I was told my colleague, JFH, now a DG, was away from Brussels for two weeks. Deflated, slightly, I continued on my walk, this time to Ixelles, where I used to live, notably to discover whether the apartment I used to inhabit still existed and whether my old landlord was in residence. Well it was a yes for the first question and a no to the second, though his name was still on the bell. Undeterred, I walked down to the Étangs d'Ixelles, continuing to photograph building and objects of interest and then wound may way up Chaussée d'Ixelles past the shopping and entertainment area I used to frequent. Arriving at Avenue de la Toison d'Or, it was a short walk back to my hotel, to take stock, and await the visit of my friend, FN, from last night.
1 July 2014 - I had a lot of e-mails to catch up on in the morning and after a lunch of two boiled eggs pinched from the breakfast buffet, I headed out to Ste Catherine's again to meet the friend I had tried to meet yesterday, MV, and who works as a hotel receptionist. I tried to play dumb, but thanks to Facebook, where we had re-connected some time ago, MV sussed out who I was fairly quickly. Physically he had changed the most of all of those friends I had re-connected with in Belgium after all these years this week, but mentally and, most importantly, humouristically, he was still the same and we spent a couple of hours catching up while he worked. Not only did he put me in contact with BD, another friend from the past and with whom I subsequently friended on Facebook, I got to see a couple of the specially decorated rooms that this boutique hotel possesses and met one of M's regular British customers. We then arranged that I would meet him earlier for lunch tomorrow and I headed back to the hotel, where I was supposed to meet up with FN for a beer, but that fell through. However, as luck had it, the former EU colleague, JM, on whose voice mail I had left a message saying I was in town phoned me and invited me to dinner in Uccle with him and his wife for Wednesday night. So after buying my Tuesday night dinner at the snack place across the square from my hotel and eating it in the late sunshine on my hotel room's shared balcony, I checked out the evening's entertainment on line and learned that the Grande Place would be the site of the Ommegang tonight at 9 pm till about 11:30. This is an annual representation of a historical event dating from 1547 when Charles V and his son Philippe II visited the area and were joined by various heads of other states of the time. The costumes and flag waving were pretty impressive and a few of us were lucky enough to be offered free beers as part of the show. Tickets for the spectacle had been on sale and were sold out, but I managed to watch for free it from a railing bordering the Grande Place and there was a large screen on the square that I could see and which showed the entire production. Unfortunately, the event conflicted with the Belgium-versus-USA World Cup soccer game, but by the time the Ommegang was finished and I was safely back in my hotel room, neither team had scored, so it went into overtime and finally Belgium gained the upper hand at 2 to 1 and the Belgians continued to celebrate the win outside my hotel window until well into the wee hours of the morning!
2 July 2014 - I worked on e-mails in the morning and left for Place Ste. Catherine so as to have lunch with MV. I waited for him in the lobby of his boutique hotel workplace for a good half hour and when his colleague was finally able to contact him by phone learned that he'd had a sudden family emergency, had sent me a Facebook message about it, and proposed postponing our lunch until tomorrow. However, I was not sure of my plans for the morrow so told him I'd let him know. I then met up with FN for a while and he accompanied me to the tram station so I could travel to Uccle for the dinner with JM and his wife AM, JM being a past colleague at the EU as mentioned yesterday. He brought up names of people I had forgotten about and let me know who of our small, very social work team was still around, who had gone on to work for the EU in other countries and who had risen into higher positions. Thanks to him, I was able to contact a couple more former colleagues via LinkedIn. He also told me of the massive changes to the EU since I had left in 1992, the Union having grown from 12 members to something like 28. I asked him about possible jobs and he encouraged me to take a concours as he had done, as there is apparently at the moment a lack of British citizens in the EU. He reminded me in fact that it was I who had sent him information on the concours he had taken so that he could himself become a fonctionnaire at the EU all those years ago (I had completely forgotten this fact.) I did remember on reflection that I had been present for their daughter's birth - she was now studying at a University in London but in the meantime they had also had a son, also currently studying in London. J was looking older with white hair, which had been brown when I knew him. His wife had grown slightly stouter with the childbirth and ensuing years. We had an excellent evening catching up and reminiscing and looking at photos of his family growing up. He then kindly drove me back to my hotel in central Brussels at the end of the evening.
3 July 2014 - I had hoped today to spend a day in Leuven in Flanders, looking up former colleagues of my two year work stint at the Katholieke Universiteit van Leuven, but the proposed personal schedule of my friend FN took much longer than he had envisaged so it ended up being a day of e-mails, reading on my balcony and finally meeting up in the early evening. Luckily we spent it with a beer and then dinner at the Grande Place with his 15-year-old son, as well as, eventually, his cousin, M, his cousin's second wife and their 6-year-old daughter, all from Alost. FN showed me an excellent 10-minute short film that his son JN had made as a class project in Burkina-Fasso based on a children's story.
4-5 July 2014 - Brussels, Belgium to Paris, France and a visit to Fontainebleau. My Thalys train to Paris was to leave Brussels-Midi train station at 11:15 so FN accompanied me and my luggage to Brussels-Centre station, steps away from my hotel and then on to the Midi station where I found my seat in the first class section (which was not very full); the seat was courtesy of TJ, SB's husband, who had offered it to me on his points since he travels twice weekly to Paris and the points add up quickly. The hostess offered us drinks and snacks and promptly on time at 12:35, I arrived at Paris-Nord and found my way with some difficulty to the RER, buying myself a ticket for Euro1.70 and having help with my big suitcase down the stairs by an attendant, since the elevator was not working and there was no escalator. Arriving at Juvisy RER station about an hour later, I again tried to take the elevator down to the walkway from the platform but it was not working and no one came to my aid as I carried the suitcase down the stairs. I was in text contact with MROD, my hostess, but could not find the exit and no one in the downstairs area seemed to be able to help me either, so she managed to convince the guard to let her come and find me and help me get back up to the platform again and down another set of stairs which did indeed lead to the exit. Our first stop was the office of her husband TD, a busy physiotherapist, to switch cars, and then the grocery store to buy provisions for the weekend. I helped MR prepare the dinner by sitting in their sunlit garden cutting up vegetables and chicken and a large bowl of small plums picked from the neighbours' trees so that she could make a clafoutis for dessert. At about 7 or so she received a text message from my nephew CF that he was on the RER heading toward Juvisy, so we went to pick him up at the station and spent a very enjoyable evening together (photo below taken at the dinner table on the D's patio in their spacious back yard). At the end of the evening, we dropped him off at the station again as he was off to the country of Georgia for a week of holiday the next morning. I haven't heard from him since, so trust he made it back to his digs and on to the airport the next morning!
Saturday morning started out drizzly. Nonetheless, dressed in our sports clothes, the three of us headed out around the nearby lakes for a 5 kilometre jog and I raced T up the last hill to their house at the end. The above photo was taken by their neighbour after we had arrived back at the house. During the beginning of the run, we passed two other neighbourhood women and their two dogs on leashes, who looked safe enough, when suddenly the large Alsatian (German Shepherd) leaped up and bit me on the left side of my waist. I can still see the three teeth marks and a large yellow bruise a week later but no serious damage was done and as they were known neighbours, I was assured that the dog had had all his shots. It was a bit of a shock though.
For the afternoon, after a morning of connecting with their internet and doing some work, MR suggested a visit to Fontainebleau, a nearby castle built by Henry IV, I think, and inhabited by Francis I, a visiting Pope and Napoleon, among others, and a place to which I had not yet been. The remaining photos in the section below are from there - sumptuous apartments, lovely statues and the gardens, seemingly, a prime venue for wedding photos as we came across three different wedding parties in the grounds.
In the evening, MR and T put on another dinner party at their home, this time for neighbours of theirs, D and M. D, at the age of 68, has run 7 marathons, 5 in Paris and 2 in Provence. Apparently, at the one in Provence, runners are provided with cups of wine every few kilometres!
6 July 2014
- Paris to London and then to Dover
. It was an early start, up at 5:00 a.m. and a lovely macchiato with the D's coffee maker, then I was driven to Orly airport about 20 minutes away and checked into my flight to London Heathrow. Continued in part 2
Want to read more? You are welcome to follow my continued journeys at the following links: part 2
, part 3
and part 4
All the above photos are copyright Angela Fairbank. Please contact the photographer for usage rights and/or copies