My Life as a Traveler

Brussels Oct2010

Halloween at the Airport

Well, the gremlins are out and about in Belgium today! It’s Halloween and we are heading home. It’s a very spooky day to travel.

First, last night, George went down to the lobby to print our boarding passes for today’s flight while I packed. I flip through the television channels, first looking for something in English that’s not the news. All we’ve seen the last couple of days is the story of the discovery of several explosive devices on some cargo planes headed from Yemen to Philadelphia and Chicago. I wonder, but don’t really know, if or how that will affect our travels. On the telly, I find Scary Movie, the one that makes fun of the Tom Cruise War of the Worlds and Saw. George comes up after being gone almost an hour with only partially printed passes, frustrated. We’ll get some at the airport this morning.

We get up at 6am (really 7am, since we turned the clocks back last night for daylight savings time) and make it to up to breakfast just as the lounge is opening. Our cab driver sped us to the airport in a record 20 minutes. We check in, get through immigration, but when we get to security, the line is insanely long and we walk halfway down the terminal before we find the end. It takes us over half an hour to get through. Haven’t seen a line this long in ages.

When we get to the gate, they say there’s a delay. The monitor says the flight is via Bangor (Maine?) but I’m thinking it must be going to Bangor after landing in Philly. It’s a nonstop flight from Brussels, after all.

But the delay increases. We wait 15 minutes, then another 15 minutes. Gate agents are going up and down the ramp to the plane. Uh-oh, what’s going on? As it turns out, when the explosive devices were found on those cargo planes heading to the US a couple of days ago, a bunch of cargo flights were canceled for a couple of days. However, there is still cargo that must be transported, and it looks like some of it is going on our plane. In fact, there is the rumor that people will be bumped because they want to put 50 additional boxes on the plane.

That’s the reason for Bangor. We are trading fuel weight for cargo weight and have to stop for gas between Brussels and Philly. The last time I was on a transatlantic flight that stopped for gas, it was 1978 from Moscow to Los Angeles.

Finally, we board the plane, about an hour and a half late. We settle in our seats. But wait, the flight attendants are calling for a doctor – there’s a medical emergency in the back. Somebody is having an epileptic seizure and they have to stabilize him until the airport EMTs arrive from the other side of the airport. They bring the guy to the front, the EMTs come, he goes out on a stretcher. Time to go? No! They also have to open up the cargo and find the guy’s luggage. I can see them from my window. After removing several bags belonging to everyone else, they find the right bags. All of this takes another hour.  But then we get on our way.

The best way to battle jet lag is to get a couple hours of sleep after lunch. Eventually, we reach Bangor, and it looks Pacific Northwest green without the high mountains. I’d like to go there someday!

We arrive in Philadelphia four hours late, but are able to catch a flight that gets us home at 9pm, only 3 hours late.

We arrived home safe from all of the gremlins of the day!

A Quick Tour of Brussels

It’s Saturday, and we had big plans for today. George’s meetings are over, so we were either going to take a train to the coast and do some sightseeing, or stay in town and go on some discovery walks through unfamiliar, but interesting, neighborhoods.

However, we all seem to be tired. George has a ton of writing to do and Morgan needs to do some of the schoolwork that he brought. I have to catch up on my writing and talk preparation. So George stayed in the room and worked. Morgan and I found a room adjacent to the lounge and practiced hapkido and did some school and writing.

Not too exciting. However, let me show you some of the fun places in Brussels where we went this week.

  • Everyone pees. There is the most famous statuette of the little boy peeing (Manneken Pis), the less well known statue Jeanneke Pis (little girl peeing), dog peeing (real and statue), and the cleverly named French Fry store, Manneken Frites. There is a church in the main part of town that has a pissoir (open air urinal) facing the north wall. It’s the only place I’ve ever seen where you can pee on a church.
  • The Galeries Saint-Hubert and more. Sort of the 18th century version of the shopping mall, these rows of shops with the gorgeous glass ceilings are fun to walk through and shop in. Usually, though, the stores are more expensive.
  • Licking the windows along Antoine Dansaert street. Leche de Vitrines (translated literally as licking the windows) is the French term for window shopping. Belgium is known across Europe for its designers, and many of the boutiques can be found on this street. Most are super expensive (people really pay $900 for a pair of shoes?), but are fun to look in. This trip I discovered a sample outlet which had fun, locally-designed jackets, sweaters, dresses, etc, for $40. I found a great tailored jacket here. I just love to window shop here.
  • The flower market in Grand Place. One of the greatest squares in Europe has no grand entrance. The only way to find it is through one of the many alleys that lead into it from the medieval jumble of streets that surround it. I always walk to the center and stand in awe of the amazing architecture and history. This is the place to be for any city festival.
  • The comic-book murals on the walls. There’s actually a great walk that connects over 50 murals just in the downtown area. It’s always a surprise to turn the corner and find pirates, or elephants, or just cartoon kids climbing up the wall.
  • The smell of waffles in every subway station. Belgian waffles are the best and they’re all over!

We go to Brussels about once a year and have done so since Morgan was little. It used to be the only places we would visit were the awesome indoor waterpark, the natural history museum, and bowling. After he learned to read, we hit the art galleries and the comic book museum. This time he’s finally old enough to tour the EU and sit through and enjoy a classical concert.  Kind of fun to track the growth of a child through travel, I think!

Concerts, Characters, and Chocolates

It’s easier to get to a live music concert when we’re traveling than when we’re at home.

First, you don’t have to get in the car and drive somewhere, find parking, maybe pay for parking, then get back, sometimes late at night.  When you stay in the city, you can just walk, or take the metro or bus.

Second, the possibilities! Usually, we go to the Botanique next door to the Sheraton to hear live music, but it’s just not working for us this trip. I’ve been to rock concerts, jazz concerts, and classical concerts under the dome of King Leopold’s 1880’s glass garden during past trips, but Morgan claimed to be too tired to go on our free night.

Third, often it is not expensive. Many European countries subsidize the arts, which make them affordable to everyone.

Today, we go to the opera house for a Concertini – a mini-concert by some of the musicians who are playing for the opera in the evening. It’s at 12:30pm; the time was posted on the side of the Opera House – I didn’t see it anywhere else. It was just $10 for a one hour virtuoso performance by a four piece string quartet.

The concert wasn’t held in the main opera hall, but in a beautiful baroque room lined with mirrors and frescos. The ceiling alone was worth the price. The three violin players and one cello came in – the cello player looked like he was about 17. The music was early 1900’s modern, quite discordant at times. Some of the songs reminded me of Apocalyptica  a group of four classically-trained guys on cellos who cover Metallica songs. It was fun to watch the faces of the musicians as they cued each other, then got into the music. One violinist was literally rising out of her chair during particularly moving stanzas.

After the concert, Adele and Bergen wanted to see some of our favorite shopping venues. First, we stopped at the Comic Book Museum, which has a fun gift shop and is located in a Victor Horta 1920’s Art Deco building. Belgium is the home of a number of comic book characters, TinTin for example, which you may or may not recognize. My favorites, however, are the Smurfs. Did you know they came from Belgium? Last time we visited here, I learned that there were something like 100 different Smurf characters. 100! Love those little blue guys (and gals)!

Then we went to my favorite chocolate shop, Mary’s Chocolatier. Known for its extremely high quality, it is widely recognized as the best of the many chocolate makers in town famous for its chocolate. It was our lucky day at Mary’s as well. The salesperson behind the counter normally worked in the office, so she was having fun waiting on us instead of organizing exports in the back room. She was extremely generous with the samples and even Morgan ate some brown chocolate. I bring a box home and have one per day until they’re gone.

Onward to our favorite clothing store, DOD. I don’t know what it stands for (Dressing Or Dreaming?) but it’s one of the best stores in town for discount designer duds. There’s a separate store for women, for men, for shoes, and for kids. We don’t shop a lot for clothes at home, but when we do, it is hard to find things that fit Morgan that he likes. Fourteen is a hard age to dress – too small for men’s, too big or don’t like the styles in the boys. Fortunately, we can almost always find something for Morgan. This time we found a cool sweater and a long-sleeved shirt of a bust of a lion wearing a general’s uniform. I found a couple things for me, too.

Back to the room, we head up to the lounge, have some munchies, get a doner kebab sandwich from across the street, and call it a day.

European Union

This morning we meet Adele and Bergen DeLisi in the lounge for breakfast. We trade information on sightseeing plans and I decide to meet them to tour the European Parliament later in the afternoon.

I have time to do a little shopping, first. Brussels is known as a fashion designer nexus and many of the boutiques are located off one street, Rue Antoine Dansaert. I like to walk this street (sans Morgan, who stays at the hotel watching something on the computer) and look for outlet bargains. Most of the stores are really exclusive and expensive, but have great windows. Finally, I find a store that has clothes in the back for 20 and 30 Euros ($30-40). The 30 Euro rack yields an amazing jacket and a nice long sweater. Success!

On the way back to the hotel, I grab a sandwich and a salad for lunch before our EU tour. We hop on the metro and are there in 20 minutes. We meet Adele and Bergen, get our tour sticker, go through security and get our audioguide. After a bit of fumbling, we figure out how to use it and hear about the EU.

Founded after the 2nd World War by 6 countries, the EU now has 27 members. The headquarters is here in Brussels. Here, the Parliament and Consilium make laws in a similar fashion to our House and Senate. Each person there is elected by their countrymen and serves for 5 years. The ability of the member states to get along and be flexible, but maintain their own individuality is represented in a 3 story tall mobile sculpture. It’s possible to move part of the piece and have it turn into a completely different piece.

We move to the room where all the members convene. It’s a huge hemisphere (hemicycle), with booths above it where the translators of the 23 member languages sit.  When they meet, each representative can speak in their own language and it is translated simultaneously to every other individual member. I wish they were meeting there today, but it’s empty. Still pretty cool.

I make a bathroom stop and find a cool EU bag that someone discarded in the trash. Can’t get any better than this!

Dinner tonight is in the only Ethiopian restaurant in Brussels. The only one in town and good thing we got there at 6:30. By the time we left, the place was packed.

Room Roulette

Today we move from our apartment to the Sheraton Brussels. I’m sad because I love the space and the location. Morgan and I hang out at the apartment until it’s time to go. I catch up on my reading. We pack up and roll our luggage to our new home. Most of the pictures above are places we pass as we roll.

We arrive at noon, but they don’t have a room ready. No worries, they have a club lounge with a fantastic view of the city on the 25th floor where we can wait. There are snacks, drinks, and internet. What more could you want? This is why we stay at the Sheraton. When you’re a Starwood Preferred member (25 stays/year), they upgrade you to a slightly bigger room and give you free access to the lounge, which has breakfast in the morning and hors d’oeurves at night. It’s nice, cause then we don’t have to go out to eat, sometimes for either breakfast or dinner, if we had a big lunch, which makes it money-saving and convenient.

When we arrive in the lounge, the concierge remembers us from our previous stays. Nice to have a friend in town.

At about 2pm, we go to our room and find that there is one king instead of 2 doubles like we requested. We go back to the lobby and request a different room. Yes, they have one, but it won’t be ready for another hour. It’s on a higher floor, though. Did we want a room right now, on the back side of the hotel? No, thank you, we’ll wait. Oh, and now we’re 6 floors higher. Does it matter? Kind of. Higher floor equals better view and more prestige – if only in our own minds.

One of the guys that George frequently travels with claims that he can always get a better room by finding something wrong with the first room he’s given. Granted, when you travel a lot, you become rather picky when you know that a place has perfectly good rooms along with the rooms that have leaky windows, a slightly-off smell, or are next to a really loud elevator mechanism, especially when you’re paying over $200/night. And, every time you ask for a new room, it usually means a better room.

It’s always a challenge to know when to go all the way back down to the lobby and wait for a better room. Sometimes it’s late and we’re just too tired to deal, sometimes it seems like more trouble than it’s worth. I am more likely to ask for the better room than George, who will put up with more.

We go to our 2 bedded room and wait for George to arrive. We missed lunch and I got crazy hungry and went to the mall food court across the street to get some Chinese. I also get some snails from the snail cart outside. Morgan says he’s too tired to go out to live music at the Botanical Garden next door. We stay in for the rest of the night, happily ensconced in our Sheraton, the winners of Room Roulette.

At Wa-ter-loo Napoleon did Surrender

Who hasn’t heard of Waterloo? Maybe you’ve “met your Waterloo,” maybe you’ve sung along with Abba : “My my, at Wa-ter-loo Napoleon did surrender.” Who knew (and be honest!) that Waterloo was in Belgium?  Yep, although it sounds British, is it really a Belgian town, and it was the location of today’s field trip.

Leaving Morgan at the apartment to take s shower, I started my day with a coffee and chocolate pastry for breakfast in Mokafe, the 18th century Galleries Royale Saint-Hubert (great atmosphere, interesting crowd of locals).

After getting our Metro tickets, we made our way to Midi Station and Bus W to Waterloo. Here’s a little tip: many European metro stations do not have a person to sell you tickets; they just have a machine. AND the machine ONLY takes coins, not paper money, and not credit cards. We had to go to the next  main station to find a person who can sell us tickets using my credit card. We found this to be true in Paris as well. So today’s travel lesson is: buy your metro tickets at a main station, or have lots of coins.

Back to the bus. Not exactly knowing where to get off, I asked the bus driver to let us know when we got there. About 45 minutes later, we saw the sign, got off the bus, and headed to the visitor center. Now, if you’ve ever visited a former battlefield (think Gettysburg or Manassas), usually all you find is a big field and a building where they explain what happened there. You have to imagine the battle for yourself. However, Waterloo has the Lion Mound, a conical man-made (actually, it was women who carried the dirt, bag by bag, to make this thing) hill with a monument consisting of a concrete block with a lion standing on the top. It’s 226 steps to the top, where you can see over the battlefield clear to the next town. Besides the lion hill, there’s a panorama from the 1920’s and a wax museum from the 1940’s. There’s also a very well done and current film that describes the battle.

Here’s the history: after Napoleon failed miserably in his attempt to annex Russia into his empire (which was quite huge, including Spain, Italy, and most of Western Europe), he was deposed and imprisoned on the Island of Elba by the neighboring rulers. The Kings of Prussia, Spain, Austria, and England took their countries back and restored the French borders to about the same as they are today. After a couple of years in exile on his island, Napoleon escaped to the French Riviera and made his way to Paris, raising an army of 124,000 soldiers vowing to help him restore his glory.

England and Prussia were not about to let this happen. The Duke of Wellington got his 106,000 men and the King of Prussia got his 112,00 ready to go. Napoleon thought he could take his army and beat either one of them individually, but not both at the same time. He almost did, too, but ended up being surprised by soldiers hiding behind some of the rolling hills and was forced to surrender.

My favorite quote: Lord Uxbridge, from horseback, after his leg was shattered by a cannonball, to the Duke of Wellington riding nearby: “By God, sir, I’ve lost my leg!”  Wellington:”By God, sir, so you have!”

Favorite fun fact that I can’t confirm on Google: Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” was written in response to the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo.

Back on the bus, we ride into Waterloo proper and have a fantastic lunch at Le Pain Quotidien, (Daily Bread). This is a chain of bakery/lunch restaurants  that has stores worldwide (including a bunch in the Washington DC area), then headed back to the apartment.

Waterloo – promise to love you forevermore!


Brussels! After a nice flight on US Air and a reasonable 4 hours of sleep, we arrive in Munich. We check into the lounge, have some champagne and breakfast, and wait for our flight to Brussels. It’s late, but that’s ok, we can’t check in to our apartment until 2pm. We fly Lufthansa, which, even on a one hour flight, serves us sandwiches and beer (hear that US Air?)

At the airport, we breeze past the baggage claim with our carry-ons and find a taxi to take us to our apartment. Usually in Brussels we stay at the Sheraton, but the rate for this Monday and Tuesday night is more than George’s per diem. Instead, I found an apartment for the 2 nights, but it’s located 20 mins by bus from the center where George meets up with his crew; not the most convenient.

We get to the apartment and there’s no key! When we reach the reservations folks, they say, sorry, but there was a problem with this apartment and we need to move to another location. Hmmm… they send a taxi, though, and we head back toward the town center. Could it be… one of their apartments is just a block from Grand Place, the most central you can be. Yes! They have booked us for the same price (131euro/night) into a penthouse suite (usually 295euro/night) 3 blocks (instead of a 20 minute bus ride) from where George needs to be at 8am. We are happy. They even gave us free internet and free breakfast. Can’t beat that. Wish we would have booked this apartment for the whole week!

Just so you know, that is really the right way to treat people if you are a hotel manager and have to move people from the room have promised them. Always upgrade, include other free stuff, and make it as easy as possible for people to disrupt their thoughts about how things are supposed to go. Sometimes we cannot afford the Sheraton, and B-Apart Brussels will be our new automatic second choice.

We walk around this huge (by European standards) apartment, and marvel at the gigantorous balcony with a smashing view of the cathedral. We are just around the block from our favorite mussels restaurant and everything else that takes us 20 minutes to walk to from the Sheraton. We go outside and scout out the best way for George to get to his bus stop, stopping at the impressive Grand Place on the way back.

We’re tired, though. The 4 hours of sleep is catching up to us. At 6:30pm (early by European standards) we go out to Chez Leon, home of the cheap but delicious moules/frites/Maes (bucket of mussels, fries, local beer) combo. The place has been there since the 1920’s, run by the same family. It’s just like coming home.

And it only takes us 3 minutes to get back to our room for a good night’s sleep!

A-17 Infiltrated!!!

Some observations from the airport…

  • If you are a frequent flyer, you can stand by for an earlier flight for no charge. If you are not a frequent flyer, there is a charge. US Airways charges $50 per person. Fortunately, we are frequent flyers. We had our flight scheduled to leave Atlanta at 8pm, arriving home around midnight. Since it was not really conducive to stay in Atlanta til then as people had school and work, we went to the airport to try to make the 11am departure. We arrived too late for that one, but caught the 1pm departure to Charlotte, and what’s more, got first class to boot. More celebration!
  • TSA has spot drills, and they are so exciting! As we were collecting our computers, bags, and belts in security, someone yelled “A-17 infiltrated! Freeze!” Everyone froze. Security officers blocked the entrances to/from the gates and the metal detectors. I didn’t know if I needed to crawl under the bench for safety or use my hapkido to fight off infiltrators. After everyone stood frozen in place while each officer called, “clear!”, the TSA manager man came out and announced that this was just a drill and thanked us all for participating. Phew!
  • If you are a frequent flyer, it pays to buy a pass to the airline’s lounge. There are decent snacks and drinks there, nice bathrooms, and comfy chairs for you to slouch in while you wait for the next flight.

Instead of arriving at 11pm, we got home at 8pm. Still decent. Thanks, US Air!

Two days later, we were back at the airport, dropping Mom off for her flight to Portland. Turns out, she had a “Freeze!” story of her own. President Obama was leaving Portland on Air Force One that evening and every plane, no matter where it was (I guess they told the ones in the air to keep circling), had to “freeze” while he took off. They even stopped the cars on the freeway to the airport. Her plane just landed and sat on the runway for 15 minutes. Not a bad delay, considering. Remember when flights at LAX were delayed for an hour so Bill Clinton could get a haircut?

Four days after that, it’s the airport again. We’re scheduled for the 3pm flight to Philly to connect with the flight to Munich, then on to Brussels. We try to leave early to catch the 1pm flight, out of Norfolk so we’ll have more time in the lounge, but don’t make it. Arriving in Philadelphia, we only have half an hour to quaff some wine, cheese, and meat from their buffet before boarding the Munich flight.

George, Morgan, and I each had our boarding passes as we approached the gate. George got through, I got through, but I turn around to see that Morgan gave them the wrong boarding pass, the one from the Norfolk-Philly flight. He couldn’t find the paper that would get him on the international flight! Where did it go? Did I have it? NO. Would we have to leave him in Philadelphia? Fortunately, the ladies at the gate let him in without the little paper, seeing that we checked in at the lounge. When we were on the plane he found the boarding pass IN HiS POCKET. Aaarrgh!

Thanks again, US Air!  We’re on our way to Brussels.