Brussels was a lovely week of meeting up with friends, with some good food and a dash of culture throw in.
The main objective of stopping in Brussels as we wound our way inexorably westwards and towards ‘home’ and the end of the trip was to see our good friends and their respective families.
The focus was on catching up, but we managed to do a few cultural things too.
One day we visited the European parliament and its museum, which was extremely well done although rather bittersweet for the pro-European Brit in me. The museum had a family game to play as we wandered round the exhibits, and the kids ran around looking for answers while the adults tackled some of the more complex questions.
My main sensation was of how the lofty ideals and desire post WWII to create a united Europe to prevent war, has been pushed somewhat off track, but the fundamental values that the EU stands for are still worth fighting for, and that the UK would be better served engaging properly with all the EU does, rather than standing on the sidelines and criticising like a resentful teenageer.
Lofty ideals indeed.
At a time when the EU is under threat, I feel it should be less arrogant, blithely assuming that people understand and support what it is doing, and instead be a pro active advocate for the things it wants to do, and explain the benefits. There are some immensely dedicated technical staff, and MEPs, who campaign long and hard for what they believe in – some of which is beneficial to EU citizens – but most EU citizens, and certainly most Brits, would have no idea that the EU is protecting them or debating policy ideals that they can, through their MEPs, input into. I guess Brussels is suffering from the general frustration and distrust of politicians and bureaucrats that currently characterizes much of Western politics – with the added complication of not being well understood, feeling more remote than national politics, and being easy to critizise as a supra national body.
Another day we had a lovely picnic with other families who live/used to live in Mozambique, in one of the beautiful parks in the centre, and then we went on an ‘underground treasure hunt’ around ancient Coudenberg Palace. It was great fun watching our bunch of 7 kids trying to work together to solve all the various puzzles hidden in chests around the ruins.
The rest of our time in Brussels was spent catching up on everyone’s news over wine, and just letting the kids hang out.
The last night, I took Lauren to the Hard Rock café on the Grand Place, to celebrate the end of our trip, as the next stop would be Lisbon to be reunited with family and start a whole new chapter.
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.
I must admit, I was equally looking forward to, and anxious, about this trip. Four different trains, a bus replacement, some short connection times, an overnight train where we most likely wouldn’t be lucky enough to get a compartment to ourselves, two bags, and an 8-year-old to entertain for a day and a half.
We had lots of maths and English planned and all devices fully charged.
The first train was from Split to Zagreb – a two-carriage fairly modern affair, airconditioned and tilting. At times, as we tilted our way around mountain sides and sheer drops, I missed the bulky and solid, non-tilting Macedonian and Serbian trains. The lack of cigarette smoke was a huge relief though.
The views were spectacular, and gave a completely different view of Croatia compared to the coast. Small villages with houses made from local stone, seemingly with only the railway or unpaved tracks as access, craggy mountains and rolling green foothills, some of the trees starting to turn lovely shades of yellow and red, we ate our breakfast (surprisingly good pain au chocolat and takeaway coffee) while gazing out the window.
In a way, this felt like the end of one phase of our journey – the bumbling about with little sense of urgency, direction or a plan part – as we now had definite dates and purpose. We needed to get to Brussels and then onto the UK before our rail passes expired.
I was a little sad to stop the bumbling, but also excited to head north, where worse weather would be made up for by friends and home comforts. In fact, as if to mark this point, the heavens opened about an hour out of Split, and suddenly we were in ‘English weather’ – cool, grey, drizzly and dull.
For the first part of the journey Lauren worked on her maths – some fairly difficult stuff involving calculating the area and perimeters of things. She likes maths and has an instinctive grasp of many of the concepts, but gets easily discouraged when she doesn’t ‘get it’ immediately. Of course, as she progresses she won’t be able to ‘get it’ immediately and she needs to learn to deal with this. We are working on it.
We transferred to a bus replacement about halfway to Zagreb, which actually got in 45 minutes before the time scheduled for the train to have arrived, despite having been told it’d be an hour later.
We faffed about sorting out onward tickets and Eurostar reservations with a very helpful if somewhat technologically challenged lady at Zagreb station, meaning I wasn’t entirely sure the bit of paper we had would be recognised as a reservation in Brussels.
Once that was sorted, we stuck our bags in a left luggage locker and headed out to explore. I took an immediate liking to Zagreb – there seemed to be an energy and vibrancy to it that felt more real than the touristy places we’d been, and more sophisticated and quirky than some of the non-touristy places we’d been.
One odd example of the ‘quirkiness’ of this town is the Museum of Broken Relationships. A strangely compelling little place with ‘mementoes’ and write ups from people after relationships had ended. Some were very funny, some were very sad, and some made you think. A few were not child suitable, but luckily, I’m a fast reader and managed to head Lauren off onto more promising territory.
After being somewhat bemused by the Museum, we wandered through beautiful back streets – largely pedestrianised – among elegant old buildings and some ornate churches. There was a smattering of tourists but certainly not the hordes encountered elsewhere.
It was the first time the weather felt really cold and ‘northern europeany’ and I was glad I had packed warm clothes for us both.
After some grocery shopping in a massive department store, a snack of (yet more) roasted sweetcorn, and a pricey but delicious dinner in one of the vibey, busy, techno-blasting restaurants in one of the main squares, it was soon time to return to the station for the overnight train to Munich. It was Friday night, and Zagreb felt like it was just getting going.
We, however, would be crammed into a 6-person compartment with two middle aged German ladies and a lovely (if rather, ahem, gassy) Croatian guy who took on the role of protector and insisted on hauling everyone’s bags about and ‘shielding’ Lauren from a rather drunk/stoned woman who barged down the corridor in a right state.
In a whole carriage, only two of the 6-bed compartments were occupied, but while on Balkan trains this simply allowed everyone a compartment to themselves as the train company spread you out, the perhaps more profit-minded German company that ran this train decided to cram all 11 passengers into two 6-bed compartments… I guess otherwise, people would never pay for the 2 bed compartments, which are significantly more expensive. Lauren and I had been allocated the very top bunks, but as there were only 5 of us in the compartment, I negotiated the middle bunk. Lauren was delighted to finally be on top.
After the border checks with Slovenia we all settled down and got some sleep; the train was certainly smoother and cleaner than the previous ones we had been on, but somewhat less ‘characterful’. The upper and middle beds had two vertical straps on the ‘outer’ edge which were designed to stop you falling off. At one point I woke up and Lauren was curled up into a tiny ball, with half of her body halfway off the bed; she would have easily fallen between the straps if she’d rolled over. I edged her back on without her waking and got a kick in the face as a reward as she stretched out.
A full hour before arrival the overly cheery attendant woke us all up, but all was forgiven as this time I did actually get the promised coffee, and even a bottle of water and a pain au chocolat, courtesy of the train company. Living the high life now we were in Western Europe! A very quick change at Munich went as smoothly as might be expected, and then after a few hours, an even smoother change at Frankfurt (they have diagrams of every train that runs from each platform, with a colour-coded guide to where to stand for each carriage!) saw us arriving exactly on time, exhausted but happy to be in Brussels, where we were excited to catch up with friends from Mozambique.
Next: Red light districts and Reunions in Brussels.