Funny what temporal conditioning does to you. It turns you into an idiot. Speaking for myself, of course. Spring has been trying to bust out for what seems like weeks in St. George, the earliest recipient of seasonal graces in Utah. My little gray matter filed that tilting-earth expectation under Spring in Europe, a context a wee bit higher in longitude, around 25 degrees, which is still a gleam in her eye. Lucky for us we packed for riding motorcycles.
Though, London was gracious in her clime, chilly enough to bundle, but warm enough to hold naked hands.
We checked out of the Hotel California and we did leave early Wednesday morning to catch a train to Brussels from St. Pancras Station. We arranged our passage the day before, in fact before finding our hotel, via interactive kiosks in the ticketing area of the international queues of St. Pancras.
I discovered that day walking out of Euston Station that I’m not as easy with uncertainty as I thought. I couldn’t conceive of what to do next from a touring standpoint until I had figured out what we were doing next from a traveling one, which became the first order of our visit to London. This happened to me Tuesday morning in Douglas. I just hadn’t realized it. I could not enjoy the tour unless at least the subsequent passage was planned. I wished I had learned this there and then in London, but it would become an issue later in our journey as well.
To retrieve our tickets from the kiosk all I had to to was either enter a code or swipe my credit card, and the machine printed our tickets putting us well on our way to the queue, just beyond customs.
We learned, in fact rehearsed the ritual of ridding our persons with anything metallic, our bags of anything fluid, removing shoes (we both sported slip-ons to expedite this process), belts, change and submitting out bodies to detection. Uneventful. And then a douanier politely asks me to step aside and open my backpack for his inspection. I had anticipated this with the tripod and lenses I was carrying.
He had me remove anything metallic, and he felt around the entire pack, stumped. “I know I saw it,” he claims under his breath. Saw what? “Did anyone give you anything or ask you to carry anything in your bag?” Nope.
He put the bag back through the x-ray machine. The belt stopped. His eyes widened and he touched the screen with his index finger, “La.” The back pack exited on the belt, he picked it up and brought it back to where I was standing and with some haste ran his hands along a panel inside the outer compartment of my bag, a place where one might store a pen or a tire pressure gauge, or as in my case the last time I used this back pack when hiking in Zion, a small pocket knife.
He was excellent at reading nonverbal and concluded that I had no recollection up to that very moment of having that knife, a three inch blade in a wood safety sheath given to me by my father, inside my back pack. “This cannot go with you,” he asserted. I understood and surrendered the memento.
Incroyable. We went through TSA inspections in Las Vegas and Chicago, and international border inspections in Dublin and Douglas and no one finds a three inch pocket knife?
We made our train with seconds to spare.
Our passage was booked on Eurostar, a high-speed train that reaches the Continent via the Chunnel. We sailed along the southern countryside of England and plunged into the underwater tunnel still a ways inland, and had no sense of speed or distance as we shot through. When we emerged on the Calais side we remarked, that was it? The pressure changed, certainly, but other than that one would not be the wiser.
France. Home. Again. I’m not certain of that affinity, where it comes from and why it endures. I served half my mission for the LDS Church in France and the other in Belgium. I had returned to France on a number of occasions to shoot and now there I was, a tourist, visiting for pleasure for the fist time in five trips, a context as foreign to me as was traveling with the woman of my dreams.
Our railed bullet transitioned us from the rural rolling hills of Northern France to the industrialized and integrated quartiers of Belgium. We had a brief stop in Lille, a border town not far from a significant city I served in while a missionary.
The skies clouded and ambient temps dropped as our train eased in to Gare Midi in Brussels.
Brussels was at one time to me what Oz was to Dorothy, though I didn’t have any ruby slippers. A place of transition, a place of cosmopolitan mixes and cultural melanges so foreign and yet so embedded in the familiar as urban contexts go that it demands your attention on every sensory channel.
And Brussels is the home to me of the manna of my missionary service, waffles. That word means nothing to Americanized palates. We have no idea. We’ve been lied to by the International House of Pancakes. Western Belgian Waffles are a universe away from the real McCoy found in the gaufferies in the alleys and on the corners of the maze that is Brussels. Gauffre, and in particular, gauffre Liegeois.
We went topside from Gare du Midi, a point of entry to this town that I was not familiar with, and I made the mistake, once again of following my internal compass. This lasted only a few blocks when I followed Mindy’s sage advice to actually ask someone where the hell we were and where we needed to go.
We were in Algerian territory, a quartier not unlike those I had spent many nights in debating Muslims about Abraham, reading passages of the Qur’an, trying to understand the most foreign ideologies and customs I had every been exposed to up to that young point in my life. It wasn’t a good experience for me, resulting in a prejudice I have yet to get squelch. And so we walked along the streets, among the shops and by the signs in a language I cannot read, making me even more hyper-vigilant than I already am. Algerians are the guests of Belgium whose welcome was worn out decades ago. But I had better get used to them again, quickly.
Most retail transaction is conducted by Algerians and not just in their quartier. So when we crested the cobblestone path into the Grand Place of Brussels and we began the search for the authentic waffle, I needed to rid myself of the prejudice, agree I would not let current Belgian immigration trends lessen the pleasure of this tour.
We found our hotel, a Best Western on Marche des Herbes adjacent to the Grand Place. We were too early for check in but were able to stash our burden of back packs and start our search for Oz’s specialty.
We did find a waffle near Queen Elizabeth’s Fine Arts Center on the Thames in London and I could neither wait or resist and so we picked up a couple, nine Euros (!) worth. And they were okay, closer to the real thing, but not quite there.
On a side street to the Grand Place I was drawn in, Mindy in tow, by an aroma only found there, the pollinating steam that escapes the waffle iron. And so we stopped and looked and the persuasive Algerian shop owner read me as adroitly as the customs agent, invited us in to sit at a table and catered to our desire of having a real Belgian Waffle.
They were almost everything I could remember, wonderful for sure, surpassing anything in an IHOP or my own kitchen for that matter. But they weren’t the working man’s walking waffle that was my comfort food when I was knocking on the door of Belgium. Mine was with Nutella, of course, and Mindy’s with whipped cream and strawberries. The kindness, gentillesse of our server obscured any predisposition I held of Algerian stereotypes, not again to be confirmed by anyone else during our walk through the Grand Place quartier of Brussels. That withstanding, I was still unsatisfied with our waffle search.
We walked the mazes of the restaurant quartier, researching for our evening meal. It wasn’t yet noon and kitchens were warming up, raw fresh produce stacking up in the alleys, awnings cranked away from their moorings to provide shade from a sun to remain unseen, unfelt throughout the day.
The ambience was lovely, increasing anticipations of taste buds to be satisfied a little later. It was during this walk that we came upon a corner market, a convenience store, and in the window display among packages of cookies and Spritz were cellophaned bricks of both plain and chocolate covered Gauffres Liegeois. Eureka.
Ten waffles for the price of one of our earlier libations, stemming from some waffle sweat shop in Liege, Belgium. No matter. This is what I was looking for. And when I opened a package and took a careful bite, my system was flooded with memories and feelings and dopamine. Mindy had one too and while she was unable to realize the effects I was experiencing, she did understand the differences between waffles there and waffles here.
My satisfaction was compounded when we came across a shop of Minichamps Miniatures, models cars and motorcycles, just about anything that is internally-combustibly powered in scale from 1/64 to 1/12. I still had a waffle in hand while looking into the shop window. This is what heaven must be like.
This, and to be married to a beautiful, tolerant woman.
I examined every package, every car, looking for one that might echo what was in my garage back home. The selection was enormous, more overwhelming than the Sear’s Christmas Catalog. I was looking for a Miata, but found instead a 1/64 version of the Boxster. Ten Euros. Deal.
We took our treasures back to our hotel and stashed them with our bags, our room still not yet ready. Back on the place we searched for and found the Manneken Pis, the little peeing dutchboy of Brussels.
Google it if you want to know, suffice it to say that this little statue is enough to make any grown man with an enlarged prostate cry. We learned from an indigenous student that during Beerfest the little boy pisses beer. Well sure, doesn’t everyone during Beerfest?
Beer’s a big deal here, as much as chocolate, for which there is a museum, as much as lace, for which there is a museum, and therefor and to whit, beer not only has a museum here, but it’s very own college as well, a degree in brewing.
All my previous visits to Europe were during the time of my abstinence from alcohol, though while working and living in Belgium particularly I’d often wondered what Stella Artois tasted like. It was during our second edible quest, the ubiquitous frite, where I order a small one to complement the golden, twice-fried frites we enjoyed for lunch.
So this is what everyone’s raving about. Delicious. A match made in heaven. Actually, a match made just around the corner from the friterie where we were dining at the college itself.
Makes my mouth water just writing about it. Frites are in the same paradigm as waffles, as certainly is any other westernized, expedited food source; tacos, pizza, spaghetti, burritos, quiche. They make them differently than we do with beef lard and double dipped fry process. Frites and sauce. Mmmm mm.
After lunch we hiked up to Brussels’ eleventh century Cathedral, St. Michael’s and Gudula. While it lacks the patina of Notre Dame, St. Michaels is an extraordinary display of commitment and theologic symbolism.
The pulpit carved from hardwood is one of the most detailed and animated depictions of Genesis. One could read and admire it for hours, moved in its semantics. For me I marveled at how followers are motivated by such a complex representation of the fall of man, the guilt of the implied sin and the promise of hope involved in adherence.
We trotted down more side streets and photographed Mindy with her newly acquired “Helga” hat.
At three in the afternoon finally checked into our room and crashed. I was able to book the next day’s passage to Paris online via the TGV, but had no plan for our next night’s stay.
There are inherent benefits to traveling with a beautiful woman not the least of which is that no matter the scenery there is always extraordinary beauty by my side.
We dined that night down one of the restaurant alleys at an Italian place. We were serenaded, Besa Me Mucho, and I just happen to know the lyrics, serenading my sweet traveling companion.
After dinner we snapped these nighttime shots of the Grand Place, something else I’ve always wanted to do, but had always been without a lens wide enough to capture its grandeur, until that night.