December 8 - Big Zebra

We woke up to the alarm at 08:00.  Almost immediately thereafter, we both started to get bombarded with emails and texts from Belgium.  The messages stated that we needed a negative Covid test, and we had to stay in quarantine until after that.  We weren’t sure why they waited until the day of arrival, we could’ve gotten tested yesterday.  We were both a bit flustered at this.  From the messages, it was a little ambiguous if we needed an antigen or PCR test, but it seemed like PCR.

We left the Airbnb around 09:00, and took a short walk to the train station.  Unlike the past couple of days, it was cold and gray outside.  Inside the train station, we checked the information board, and it was easy to find our gate.  The train came connected with one going to Amsterdam; apparently this tweaked the order of the boarding gates, but we didn’t know (or care) since we’d looked at the board rather than our tickets.  The train was quite fast, and the scenery was boring except for the occasional nuclear plant out in the middle of nowhere.  We spent much of the trip checking out tests and test sites, and nothing seemed too onerous.  One testing site was right at the train station where we were going to be arriving.

We arrived in Brussels a little before noon.  We saw the Atomium - a giant molecule-shaped structure - a little bit before arriving at the Midi station.  When we got into the terminal, there were signs for COVID testing sites in both directions.  But before that, Justin used the restroom, and almost got caught in the middle of a police fight, as 3 or 4 officers were keeping a suspect and 3 or 4 of his friends from leaving.  Justin got in and out of there as fast as possible.  

As to the COVID testing sites in either direction, we checked these out, and they both had 24-48 hour turnarounds, during which we’d have to quarantine the whole time, and we weren’t down with that.  Again, we were irked that if we’d known, we could’ve just gotten tested in Cologne yesterday.  We made appointments for a testing bus, where testing was easy.  Justin had the first test, and inside he asked about whether rapid PCR testing was possible, and they said yes, at a testing location at the airport.

So rather than get an antigen test, Justin left the testing bus, and we decided to just take the train out to the airport, get tested, then come back.  We were supposed to meet Justin’s mom around 15:30, and we figured we’d have enough time to get there and back before then.  The train out to the airport was more or less a backtrack of the last little bit of our train ride in.  It was a local train, and not nearly as nice, and almost completely empty as well.  The train conductor had a thick, thick Dutch accent and was rolling his r’s for about half a second each time; it was like a bit from Austin Powers’ Goldmember.  The train smelled, but Crystal couldn’t smell it, and she got concerned it was Covid, but then she did smell it.

At the airport, everyone kept wanting to give us the free arrival test, but we actually wanted to pay for the departure test, because that was the rapid PCR result - it just cost money.  We went up to the departure level and found the location, which was outside.  At the location, we had to sign up online, but we screwed up the registration because we accidentally put in we were arriving instead of departing.  Once we got everything squared away, there were about 8-10 people in front of us, including a woman with a weimaraner.  The line was excruciatingly slow, it was very cold outside, and our hands were getting cold because we were holding stuff.

As the time wore on, the testing facility started adding more people, who apparently had been on break or at lunch or something.  Once the additional workers came in, the line sped up exponentially.  Eventually we got tested around 14:00.  Given that we didn’t know until this morning that we were going to need a test, we were glad that the only real issue we had was the cost of the test.  Getting back to Midi was easy, as we did the opposite of what we’d just done.  We knew which side, and facing which direction, we wanted to sit on.  We got back to Midi a little before 15:00.  We were both a little hangry at this point, so we got some chips, olives, meat, cheese, and wine, and chowed down on that whilst waiting for Justin’s mom’s train to arrive from the Paris airport.

Beverly arrived right at 15:30.  She had gotten a [negative] PCR test before leaving for Paris, so she was good to go for the Belgium restrictions.  She sent us a text to meet her by the Big Zebra, and we wondered what the heck that was, but when we stood up we saw a big zebra mascot outside a restaurant about 100 feet away up and to our left.  Since we’d not had near as much time in the train station as we thought we’d have, we never figured out where the Metro was relative to the train station, so rather than fiddle with that now, we decided to just walk to our Airbnb, as it wasn’t that far and theoretically wasn’t that cold.

As it turns out, Brussels is far more hilly than any of us knew.  Pretty much the entire walk from the train station to our Airbnb was uphill.  It wasn’t particularly steep, but it was non-stop.  Aside from that, the walk was interesting.  It wasn’t that cold, there were lots of people out, and there was lots to see.  We knew basically nothing about Brussels aside from it being the capital of Belgium, having a well-renowned Christmas Market, and being where the EU meets.  The demographics of the city were more eclectic than we expected, as there was a significant portion of the population that was of African descent.  It took a bit, but we finally remembered about King Leopold and the Congo being a Belgian colony well in the past.  Perhaps we subconsciously tried to forget, as King Leopold’s Ghost is one of the most terrifying yet mesmerizing things you’ll ever read.

The street that our Airbnb was just off of was a fairly large avenue chock full of African stores and restaurants, including Congolese and Senegalese.  We definitely were not expecting this; it was a welcome surprise.  When we got to the Airbnb, Justin looked at his phone to figure out what the code was, or where to find the key, or whatever the manner of entry would be.  As it turns out, he’d forgotten that we were just going to meet the owner in person.  Scrolling through the older messages, the owner Marina had asked when we’d show up, and Justin had guessed 16:00-17:00.  We glanced at our watches, and it was 16:30, phew.  She showed us around the place, which was awesome.  It was nicely decorated, especially the kitchen.  There were glossy black cabinets, including the integrated door covers for the fridge, which the place in Cologne had as well; Crystal said these were growing on her.  Marina seemed relieved we weren’t a bunch of young people wanting to party.  It kind of sucks to not be “young” any more, but whatever.

After she left, we checked our email, and we already had our Covid results - negative.  So we were free to go out whenever we wanted.  Before we did that, we charged some stuff and chatted a bit.  We told Beverly that we had a “Welcome to Europe” gift, and she asked if it was edible.  We looked at each other and said “sort of.”  She opened it up, and was excited to see a Frenchie/Boston cookie cutter we’d bought her in Cologne.  We decided to head out towards the Grand Place, the spot we’d seen on the various websites and YouTube videos showing the Brussels Christmas Markets.

This time the walk was downhill, about 20-25 minutes in total.  We saw some lights on a tall tower from afar, figured that was it, and generally walked that direction.  We walked past another place doing a light show, and it was hard to go past it, but we wanted to make a good first impression for Beverly.  The Grand Place was really impressive.  It was a very large square, with ornately designed and decorated buildings on all four sides.  There was also a life-sized nativity scene and a huge Christmas tree near the middle of the square.

There weren’t actually any Christmas market stalls in the square, so we went a little more north and found some.  Accessing the market was a bit different from what we’d experienced in Trier and Cologne.  Rather than fence off the market and check vaccination at the “door”, and rather than have each individual chalet check vaccination, there was a place for everyone to show their vaccination status in order to get a bracelet.  There were signs stating that a new bracelet would be necessary every day.  We’d submitted photos of our vaccination cards to the Belgian authorities before leaving for Europe, and had a QR code on a Belgian app on our phone.  So we just showed the QR code and our IDs, and it was straightforward to get our bracelets.

We got some fries, and Justin got his with marinara sauce, which was new to him.  We walked back towards Grand Place for the 19:00 light show, as we’d arrived the first time a little after the 18:00 show.  To our surprise, Mele Kalikimaka was the first song.  They must’ve known we’d come from Hawaii.  The lights, music, vibe was way more “modern” than we expected, as the second song had a very electronic/industrial sound to it.  After the show, we walked around some more, to the north again, and got some gluhwein (vin chaud?) and Beverly got some genever with Amaretto.  We kept walking around, just trying to see what all was around, and we had to spend about half the time making sure not to get run over by bikes, which were everywhere.

We headed back uphill to the house a different way, including a couple streets that seemed pedestrian only and pretty cool.  A lot of the streets had lights strung between buildings on both sides, with each street having a different design for its lights.  We got back to the house a little before 21:00.  We couldn’t get the door to open to save our life, as it wouldn’t open in or out.  Eventually it opened in, but we weren’t sure what we did to make it work.  Beverly went to bed shortly thereafter, and we decided to go out, but somewhere close nearby.  There was both a wine bar and an English pub just north of us by a block, but the wine bar was kind of empty and the pub had young people singing to shitty American songs (“drops of Jupiter”), so we tried a place in the same area called London Calling, which was full, but had room at the bar.

We were the only people at the bar (it had only four seats, but still), and we chatted a bit with the bartender, whom we eventually realized was the proprietor.  As part of the conversation, we asked several times how to say some things in French, and he seemed to pay more attention to us after that.  It’s not that tough to be a bartender's favorite - be interested in him/her, try to learn the language, ask how to say things, etc.  And, for return purposes, to tip well, definitely tip well.  We got some burrata with pesto, tomatoes, prosciutto and arugula - it was really tasty.  Crystal got rosé, and Justin got beer - first a draft blonde, then several Hoegaardens.

While sitting at the bar, we discussed potential things to do on Friday, when there was a 100% chance of rain in Brussels.  We debated whether to book something indoors, such as a cooking class.  We also considered a train trip to somewhere with better weather.  We checked a lot of places, and only London looked like it would have decent weather, but the UK had a testing requirement for everyone coming into the country, and we didn’t want to go through that again.  Every time we thought of leaving the bar, we told ourselves just one more.  We asked the bartender his name (in French), and he was pretty happy with us.  Next thing we knew, we were doing shots with Ahmed, chatting with him and his son.  We told him we’d be back tomorrow, and it seemed like there was actually a good chance of this.  We got back to the Airbnb just before 00:00, and had problems with the door again (thankfully we didn’t wake up Beverly).  Once inside, we caught up on the trip log before we could unwittingly forget about Ahmed and the awesome time we had at London Calling.

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