We have just returned from a two-week trip to Belgium and Berlin with our 16-year-old granddaughter Emily. She had fulfilled our requirement of learning French, but had already visited France with a class trip and was interested in seeing new sights. So we decided to spend our two weeks in situations where all three of us would be challenged by a variety of language experiences. It worked! A warning in Flemish
We stayed in downtown economy (!) business hotels, and took only public transportation. We managed to do our laundry first at a Belgian laundromat, then in an incomprehensible machine in our Berlin hotel-apartment. We ate in whatever restaurant was closest when hunger struck, or shopped at the local small grocery stores. We walked and walked and walked. We lived among people who spoke French, German, Flemish, and dozens of other European languages (given the economic times, we saw relatively few American tourists).
The trip reports to follow will, we hope, convey some of the experiences we enjoyed. As always, despite the cobblestones and sitting in chewing gum and getting drenched by summer showers, we return refreshed by our immersion, if only for a short time, in places and customs so unfamiliar to American life. We are immensely proud of our granddaughter, who was poised and curious and pleasant throughout, as interested as we were in these new experiences, and at least as appreciative of the Belgian chocolates!
Brussels Grand Place We left home early on a Wednesday morning, flew from San Francisco to Chicago, then changed planes for an overnight flight to Brussels. Thursday morning we arrived at Zaventem Airport in Brussels, a relatively quiet place. We noticed that our old acquaintance Sabena Airways had been replaced by Brussels Airways. Our baggage arrived intact. We were happy to have our passports stamped (too often they are just inspected and handed back). We threaded our way through the airport, thence to the train, a trip of about a half hour. From the train station, we boarded a Metro and finally walked the final three blocks to the Atlas Hotel, where we were greeted by courteous desk staff who promised they would have our room ready within an hour (at 9 a.m.! on a weekday!) We stowed our luggage with them and set off on a walking tour to keep us awake as long as possible.
Brussels often has grey and misty days, and this was one of them. We reached the jewel of Brussels, the Grand Place, so early that nobody was stirring, the sky was dark and there were some raindrops around. So, leaving further exploration till later we made the required visit to Mannekin Pis, where the best view was that of a woman of a certain age posing for her boyfriend in front of the statue, serenely oblivious of the many photographers who were happily photographing her! (perhaps she wasn't so oblivious after all...) We wandered the neighborhood streets, admiring the chocolate shops, till it was time to return to our hotel and claim our room.
Chicken and pastry at La Villette Freshened up, we returned to the city streets of Brussels. We ate lunch at La Villette, a charming small restaurant near our hotel and the Grand Place, which advertised Belgian specialities. Emily had vol au vent of chicken, wonderfully richly sauced, Bob had lamb, and Elsa had cod with capers. We of course had dessert as well and decided that mousse au chocolat was about as good as it could possibly be.
Time to walk some more. Since Bob and Elsa have made several visits to this city, we were interested in finding some old favorite sights. This took quite some time and quite a lot of uphill and downhill walking. We slowly became aware that it was raining, not just drizzling, and in fact there were a couple of honest-to-goodness cloudbursts, causing us to seek shelter under an awning of a butcher shop. We were getting tired, too. Finally, exhausted and dripping, we reclaimed our hotel room, laid sodden clothinng on window sills and bathroom racks to dry, and eventually gave up the fight to stay awake. We hoped to awaken the next day at a sane hour, healthy and hungry and ready for a new adventure.