I’m going to assume that should you be afforded the opportunity to travel in Europe and you’re not in the market for diamonds, there is about a 1.5% chance that Antwerp, Belgium will be on your must see list. It would be like someone traveling to the US with a burning desire for a Midwest stop in Indianapolis instead of Chicago. On the website versus, when comparing Indianapolis to Chicago two of the ten reasons for Indianapolis were possibility of drinking in public places and substantially more Facebook users. Antwerp is to Amsterdam what Indianapolis is to Chicago in terms of proximity and size, except I’m pretty confident that unlike Indianapolis, the opportunity to humiliate oneself on social media is far greater in Amsterdam. Two pluses for Antwerp versus Amsterdam: appreciably less rainy days and has mountains somewhere nearby.
My sister and brother-in-law came for a visit last month. My brother-in-law stayed for ten days while my sister Beth stayed a few extra days. With those extra days, we wanted to have some sister time away from Luxembourg just the two of us which was close and accessible by train (of which Amsterdam doesn’t qualify) with mountains of shopping (of which Germany does not qualify unless you are looking for a car, household item, or solid parka.) Paris, of course, was the natural first choice – except Beth and Matt smartly decided to take the romantic route by building in a few days of their trip together in Paris. They also did the evening Paris Fat Tire Bike Tour, which you should add to your travel wish list.
Antwerp was the second best choice. Not Brussels because nobody likes Brussels. And not Bruges, because with all due respect to medieval architecture and UNESCO World Heritage status, this was a Jimmy Choo Choo Choo kind of trip.
Boarding the local train on a Sunday afternoon, our first order of sisterly business was to photograph our being together. The great thing about sisters is that you can insist on as many retakes of this photo as you want without any fear of being called high maintenance. We have the same nose. No, actually hers is bigger. I can say that because I have more wrinkles.
Four hours and one train change in Brussels later, what might have felt like finally but felt instead like already? in the presence of someone you adore, the train rolled into Antwerp Central Station. It’s a super cool train station – some say the most beautiful in Europe – and it has a Starbucks with lots of seating and local college students. The youth vibe is present wherever you go, making the small town of Antwerp feel more cosmopolitan. Naturally we both had to go to the bathroom in the train station were the toilets cost one euro in contrast to the free toilets on the train, but here too there was no fear of someone not understanding your bladder.
It was raining. Appreciably. This condition continued for the duration of our stay, spasmodically with high winds, and never did I see anything aping like a mountain.
In a city of youth, it felt wrong to hail a cab – so with map in hand, we soldiered on in the rain from Central Station to our hotel in the heart of downtown Antwerp. I use the word "soldiered" intentionally as my feminine sister Beth was previously a US Army soldier and knows her way around a map. (As an aside, it tickled me proud with understanding to see her husband write this on her Facebook wall yesterday for Veteran's Day: "Happy veterans day to the most beautiful women to ever wear army boots and shoot an M16." )
As it was a Sunday, most of the stores were closed along the main shopping street of Meir. The Chocolate Line, a famous Belgian chocolate shop we had read about, was however open. We stopped in for a taste, as you would if you were to see an old palace that had been converted into a scrumptious looking chocolate shop. We also bought a chocolate bar for later. Fifteen minutes after that, we found ourselves at the Fritkot Max, an also famous Belgian frite place, overlooking the Cathedral on the Groenplaats. Trying to kill two birds with one calorically overloaded day, we devoured our first (but not last of the trip) Belgian frites. Max, if it was the real Max, was the only unfriendly person we encountered during our Antwerp stay. No mind though – we had curry ketchup to bring a smile to our face.
At the Matelote Hotel, a charming ten room hotel that felt more B&B than hotel, the person who showed up us to our room said: “Please help yourself to anything in the mini frig at no charge. For legal reasons, we can’t have any alcohol in your frig – but we are Belgian, so when you come downstairs to the lobby – the first drink is on us.” After putting our bags down and umbrellas up to dry, we got that free drink and peppered our new friend with questions on where we should go to dinner. Reading us like the tea leaves we are, he picked a great bistro for us called Le Zoute Zoen. Our friend later gave us a free breakfast just because.
In a beautiful library style dining room, Beth and I enjoyed a delicious Belgian three course meal at Le Zoute Zoen for 35 euros a piece. Yes, there were mussels. I don’t remember exactly what we talked about, but I’m fairly sure that over half of it was about our food. Then there was the banter with the next table – a drunk but entertaining-to-everyone-but-the-staff Romanian hair dresser with his friends and a tiny dog. We passed on a chance to go somewhere with them after. We had THE chocolate bar waiting.
Watching my sister eat her first soft boiled egg by trying to peel it was the highlight of the next day’s breakfast. (You are supposed to tap the shell while in a cup and lift the top off. I may have been an evil sister and known something of this, but watching Beth manage the yoke in her hands was too good to pass up.) Day two was all about shopping – mostly in small, non-chain stores. I was all kind of a blur. Had someone GPS’ed our movements, it could have easily been a 10k. Many of those steps were around the Groenplaats – the central hub of the downtown corridor that we always seemed to get slightly turned around in.
Some favorite spots were Paleis – where Jess from New Girl would totally shop with all their bright clothes, an Eileen Fischer like store called Sandwich, Sweet Soda – an Antwerp designer who I may have fallaciously believed to not lean toward the matronly, and Let’s Go Bananas where Beth did go bananas with some interesting jackets and tunics in the middle of dense forest of oddball and super inexpensive merchandise. We got the exact same brown jacket for 10 euros each. Mine is a little snug, but for 10 euros and a chance to tell everyone “My sister has this exact same jacket. We got it together in Antwerp.” -- you understand. We never intended to go to Jimmy C$oo, but on the morning on Day three we did hit the sales at some of the big chain stores.
The second night there was Belgium beer and an interesting conversation with the bartender about the abundance of cheap faith in America and the lack of any faith in Europe. There was also a dinner that we didn’t bother much to research – we were knee deep in laughter and topics of substance. Aging parents, parenting boys, parenting the one girl between us -- Beth's fierce four year old daughter Rae Rae who famously told Matt when he asked her to take her hands out of her pants: "Daddy, it's my 'gina and I can do whatever I want." The food was fine, but the vigor of a conversation with someone who knows all your nooks and crannies left us both fully satiated but also sad to be so geographically far apart.
We all need people to share our stories with. We also need nonpartisan fact checkers; people were there for some of most formative stories to make sure we don’t spin them into mountains or let us twist them into unnecessary corkscrews. It’s also nice to have that person to tell us when something doesn’t fit right, or when we have three versions of that same shirt sitting in our closet. My sister is that person for me, in Antwerp or an outlet mall somewhere in the middle of America.
And, I’m glad she didn’t tell me the brown jacket was snug.