Top tip: The area around Gare du Nord in Brussels is not the best place to give your child a lesson in navigation.
The hotel was (according to google) about 12 minutes’ walk from the station, so rather than figure out buses, I decided to hand over my phone to Lauren and allow her to navigate us through the city streets; a good lesson in geography and use of technology, I thought.
She marched ahead, eyes on the phone, as we entered streets that seemed a little run down, dictating when we should cross over, turn left, right etc. It was a fairly steep incline and I was puffing behind her with the bags. We turned into one street that felt a little sketchy, so I told her to keep the phone down by her side until she needed it, but she was having so much fun I didn’t want to take it off her.
Unfortunately, being more discreet with the phone gave her a little more time to look around. She was about 10 metres ahead of me when she suddenly stopped dead, staring at a large black woman in a window, wearing a bright red lace dress and nothing else – and the lace was not exactly tightly knit! A couple of windows later and I was resigned to a homeschooling discussion on prostitution, trafficking and gender relations rather than North South East and West (Never, Eat, Soggy, Waffles seemed appropriate for Brussels but I never got to use it 😦 …. ).
We thankfully made it to the hotel without incident, despite the dodgy characters on every corner. I had splashed out on a heavily discounted but nonetheless usually out of our price range hotel, knowing we’d be pretty wrecked after the journey from Croatia. We checked in, jumped in showers and then despite my wish to simply stay still for a bit after the immense journey, Lauren’s metabolism dictated a swift return to the streets in search of food.
I ended up taking her to the Hard Rock Café, where we both had immense burgers and onion rings, and even Lauren admitted to being unable to face a dessert. We had a quick jaunt around the grande place – beautiful despite being full of tourists – and the streets around, then headed back to the hotel for long baths, some time with our kindles and an early night.
The following day we had a late breakfast at the hotel – it was a grey Sunday morning and I wasn’t in a hurry to move. Lauren loved the ‘make your own waffles’ stand, and was reasonably restrained with the sauces, syrups, creams and sprinkles….
After checking out, we went to the Atomium, a rather bizarre structure of spheres and tubes, that was nonetheless an interesting couple of hours. It doesn’t quite have the romance or excitement of the Eiffel tower – although its clearly modelled on the same concept of “build something effectively useless but an interesting shape and they will come”. We did have good views over Brussels, and it kept us out of the rain….
We were really just killing time until the main event, which was visiting our friends from Mozambique, Matt and Francesca, who many of you know from their legendary parties in Maputo. Francesca was one of the three ‘bossy women’ (as defined by a certain Italian gentleman who was generally a recipient of the bossiness) working on GBS back in the days when we thought something could be salvaged post EMATUM. I was another of the bossy women, and the DFID economist at the time was the other. Matt and Francesca both work at the European Commission and I was really looking forward to catching up, despite the fact that the general depression about the trajectory in Mozambique was a likely dinner table subject, and the insanity that is BREXIT another.
Matt cooked a great meal, there was wine and chocolate tart… it was a good night. Lauren enjoyed playing with Oliver, their youngest, and I don’t think either of them got much sleep after having decided to both sleep in his room. At some point before I went to bed just after midnight, Lauren moved to my room, and I found her sleeping on a rug on the floor. I never quite got to the bottom of that, but shoved her into my bed and wriggled in too.
The next day I had planned another meet up, this time with Debora, who worked in Mozambique 11 years ago and who also works for the EC. The morning was given over to schooling, then we packed up to go, with the plan being to drop the house keys into the letter box as we left. I duly did this, then realized I’d left my phone charging in the living room.
For a moment I was in a total panic, as everything was on the phone – the address where we were to meet Debora, the information about the train and even where we actually were in the town. And of course, I couldn’t phone anyone for help. I amazingly managed to remember the address of the EC department where Matt and Francesca worked, and decided to try to track them down and get another key. A walk, a tram, a metro later, with an anxious Lauren and two bags, we made it to the EC building and luckily Francesca was available and lent us her keys.
We met up with Debora for lunch in the canteen – huge, full of people, with heavily subsidized food. People were tucking into big plates of veal and pasta and fish – goodness knows how anyone gets any work done in the afternoons! In fairness, plenty of people were just grabbing sandwiches and salads as well. I hadn’t seen Debora for about 10 years, and so she had never met Lauren. We had a lovely lunch catching up – too short, but enough to touch base and hopefully we’ll be back, or they will be in Portugal sometime.
And with that, instead of a leisurely visit to the European parliament, we had to start a dash across town back to retrieve my phone. Suddenly the perfectly logical and efficient Brussels transport system seemed the most complex thing ever – we ended up on the wrong platform of the metro, then when we tried to find our way to the other platform our cards wouldn’t work (presumably because we’d swiped in and not out, or very recently swiped in), so we returned to street level and tried to re-enter from a different route – and somehow ended up on the platform we’d been on before…. Then we managed to find a subway under the tracks and got the right platform, but then were completely disoriented when we got out of the next station and needed to get a tram (and of course, I couldn’t remember the number of the tram because I’d just had it saved on my phone, so we had to search each of the stops until we recognized the name of the stop near Francesca and Matt’s house….) enfin, it was a slightly panicky, totally unnecessary stress which highlighted just how dependent I am on my phone!
Once we retrieved the phone and made it across to Gare du Midi for the Eurostar, all went smoothly – we checked in in good time, and had a perfectly lovely journey across to London – Lauren was excited by the idea of the tunnel, although when the food came round (our passes entitled us to premium seats) that took priority – rightly so, with spicy grilled salmon followed by chocolate brownie (and a mini bouteille de vin rosé for mummy, who felt she deserved it after all the hauling of bags on and of trams, metros and trains).
Of course, while we had spent a month travelling round Europe on trains, with no major delays or concerns, as soon as we stepped onto British soil that changed – as we approached the barriers for Thameslink, the train to St. Albans and our final destination, there were hundreds of people being held back due to overcrowding on the platform caused by a broken rail and/or a broken train, depending on who you talked to. It was the middle of rush hour, and people were in that ‘don’t make eye contact, don’t give way’ London commuter mood. Welcome to London.
Eventually we made it to the platform, and to a carriage, and finally to St Albans, where our friends Sandy and Lois were waiting to collect us and provide us with food, warmth (human, and of the central heating variety) and wine.
We will be based here for a couple of weeks while we get to grips with the French curriculum that Lauren will be following while we travel (all 7 kg of the books for term one were delivered here) and do boring administrative things like renew passports and get an international driving licence etc.
London folks, get in touch! We have lots of meet ups planned. We then have about 4-5 weeks to go ‘somewhere’ (suggestions welcome, we are currently debating between India, Indonesia, Iceland or the Caribbean) where we will hopefully stay put for a while, focusing on schooling and relaxing and getting to know the place, before our big Cargo Ship Adventure in December.