Thursday the 11th of June
I was up early to finish packing my suitcase – I literally had to sit on it to make it close with all my shopping and souvenirs squeezed amongst my other possessions. I left my key card at the counter and headed to Sebastian for the final time for an espresso and fresh mint tea with a view of the Onze Lieve Vrouwe Cathedral against a gorgeous blue sky. Shortly it was time to take the tram to to the Central Station of Antwerp, but first a bypass at the Carrefour Supermarket for a long awaited bucket of strawberries and a chocolate croissant from Diksmuidse Boterkoeken that looked so delicious I could not resist!
Don’t ask me how I nearly didn’t realise that the train was already on the platform. It was 10:24 and I checked my watch for the thirteenth time – why wasn’t the train here yet! Was I on the wrong platform? What had gone wrong? I smartened up and craned my neck around the wall behind which I was seated. There it was! I am not sure if the train had been there the whole time or I had been too distracted to realise it had arrived. Luckily the trains were consistent in their lateness and I was able to lug my suitcase into the train and clumsily down the steps to a booth by myself. The following hour took us past from Antwerpen Centraal to Antwerpen-Berchem to Mechelen, Brussel-Noord, Brussel-Centraal and finally Brussel-Zuid where I was to disembark.
As the train approached the station it began to slow so that the roadside stores came into clear view, their displays attracting the attention of onlookers. For a moment, the stiff way in which the women in the windows posed lead me to think that I was looking at life-sized dolls; but my moment of naivety passed quickly and I realised I was looking into the workplace of prostitutes. The first time I had come across the brothel strip in Belgium, the men of our party had jokingly lead us to its edge where I burst into tears at the confronting sight. I had held onto the arm of my mother and was lead with the ladies around this ‘scenic route’ until we encountered the men once again at a cafe. I was eight years old when I first encountered this adverse financial calling and perceived it in a way that was forgivably naive. Now I understand the world a bit better.
The next step was to check into the Eurostar lounge which required me to put my luggage through screening and have my passport checked for the international departure to London. I had a place to myself in the lounge but as more folk arrived for the train out of Belgium I was accompanied by a group of middle-aged men who were heading home from their weekend away in Brussels. A gentleman commented on my bag taking up an incredible amount of room – we got into conversation about our journeys with his colleagues and how my English sounded American! I hope my Dutch hasn’t seeped into my English to give me an offensive accent. Finally we boarded the train and became comfortable with our carriage-mates (mine helped me pick up the dozens of receipts that had slipped out of my folder when I attempted to put my tickets away).
The Eurostar traveled at high speed through the countryside for two hours but the time difference caused us to win an hour upon arrival. The train went fast. Really fast. The countryside became a blur and I was no longer sure of where I was. Suddenly it would dive into tunnels leaving me with no clue if we were even above land and causing my ears to pop. Saint Pancreas International Station was connected to the London Underground which had incredibly clear signage so I found my way to the hotel easily.
To my surprise, my preconceived ideas of London as stemmed from its commercialisation have been largely met in my short stay here so far: double-decker red busses and rounded black taxis are abundant on every street; the underground and its passengers are in a permanent rush hour although the directions could not be clearer; restaurants specialise in cooked meat and spuds making it a challenge to find a healthy salad; there is a vibe in the atmosphere that I somehow expected! Only the days to come will change my perception and reveal to me this city and its history.