Europe 22.06.16

Wednesday the 22nd

The extent to which pace and flexibility are impacted by company is something I have become increasingly aware of this week whilst travelling with my mum. Something so simple as having to wait for one to be ready in the morning or to account for differences in walking speed have had an affect on our daily organisation, but I am lucky that mum has been open to partake on the comprehensive list of activities I compiled for our few days in Brussels, Antwerp and soon Amsterdam. This morning another change of pace was encountered as we had organised to meet with some family friends and pick up a car for the remainder of our trip. We were the first to arrive at De Vlegel, a long-time favourite since I can ever remember! We made ourselves comfortable on a communal table outside and did not have to wait long for eight more of mum’s friends to arrive.

De Vlegel is a trendy, yet family oriented venue with at least six uniquely decorated eating chambers and an outdoor area furnished with a tequila bar and jumping castle. Here, there is something for everyone! Equally experienced in breakfast, lunch and dinner, its variety of patrons can occupy the gazebo, play in the sandpit or make themselves comfortable by the fireplace. The seating arrangements range from rustic to modern and an assortment of chairs are grouped by style around each table. It is so quirky! The main room is bedecked with wallpaper which resembles a bookcase filled with miscellaneous artefacts and candelabras illuminating its dark shelves. Divided into two areas with wooden panelling, the opposite wall sports bright orange favelas and a triad of paintings depicting dancing characters. This wall opens onto a beachy compartment that has clocks decorating the blue walls and a palm tree in the corner. Next door, a rainbow zebra occupies the longest table in the venue and outside, weathered benches circle the barbecues and wood-fire oven. The interior design of the restaurant is so queer that my description almost sounds like utter nonsense!

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The speciality breakfast for which De Velgel is renowned is its £1.50 breakfast. The selection of items presented on a tray varies daily which (plus coffee) have kept us coming back to this venue time and time again. Having ordered seven breakfasts, our company filed to the bar to retrieve our meals and dug into the delicious food! We were each given both a white and a multigrain half-baguette which could be topped with butter or jam or crab-slaw or brie cheese or chocolate sprinkles, a chocolate croissant, a slice of kiwi, and a shot of freshly squeezed orange juice. For just the change in your pocket, this was tenfold times better than the £25 euro breakfast buffet at the Hilton! And the coffee! The coffee deserves its own little spiel: made with a subtle bean to please any and all palettes, it was served in a long black mug with a pot of whipped cream intended to be spooned into the coffee. This is plated with a slice of cake, two shot glasses containing rice pudding and baileys cream, and a speculoos cookie. I introduce to you the traditional and fabulous Flemish Coffee! Drool!

The morning allowed us just enough time to touch base with mum’s childhood friends before our companions left for work or to convene their daily errands. Even my best friend from before potty-training made an appearance before she began her study regime for the upcoming end-of-semester exams. We left with Johan, a friend mum might not have encountered in our past three return trips to Belgium due to our consequently synchronised holidays! And were it not for this morning, we would miss him once again as he was off to the Pyrenees Mountains, and in the meantime we were going to borrow his car. After a quick explanation of the bells and buttons on the smart car, and a small allergic reaction for both mother and I (hereditary) to the black cat which curiously pawed its way between our legs, we resumed the activities planned for the day.

The remainder of the day was reserved for a truly touristic endeavour in Antwerp. Although only a year had passed since I was last in this magical city alone, I wanted to relive my adventures with a memorable walk traversing the streets surrounding the Onze Lieve Vrouwe Kathedraal. It is at this monument that we commenced our tour, first in the direction of the surrounding boutiques that tourists lap up without concern of the useless quality of its tackily branded merchandise. Naturally, we could not resist. The pair of shops were a complementary combination of only the most stereotypically Belgian products: chocolate and beer. We sampled an assortment of pralines filled with liqueur, the most remarkable one a dark chocolate hard-shell bursting with Elixir d’Anvers. This spirit is a renowned spirit in Antwerp composed of 37% alcohol with a delightfully fresh taste, as the name suggests. When we entered the store next door, we were tempted to purchase a bottle to smuggle back home in our suitcases. This was not the only beverage which intrigued our thirsty eyes: plenty of father’s favourite typical beers such as Duvel, Vedette, de Koninck, Leffe and Kwak filled the wooden case, amidst a collection of sweet beers which might entice my palette. I had previously tasted Lindemanns Cherry beer, a favourite I only wish was available in Australia, but the bottles advertising beers flavoured to the taste of mango, coconut, banana, passionfruit and even chocolate were something to see. Whilst this was all well and good, I could not pass up the opportunity to purchase a particular rich and creamy spirit: SPECULOOS LIQUEUR! Now this is an innovation I need in my life!

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We reached the central square of Antwerp, where the Town Hall resides opposite the green copper statue of Brabo, a folkloric character whom characterises the origin of this city. He stands clutching a large dismembered hand, as though ready to propel this limb, belonging to the giant, into the depths of the city. By chance, the Town Hall was open to the public marking the 450th anniversary of its construction and operation as the administrative offices of a growing world-city. What is, rather affectionately, known as “Antwerp’s Best Known Building” was the replacement for the Bread House which had previously accommodated council meetings and affairs of state. Driven by the need for greater space than the bakery allowed, and inspired by the lust for a structure which would reflect the stature and prestige of such an illustrious city, the Town Hall came to construction in 1565, and into operation at the turn of the century. This ambitious architectural plight materialised with a subsequent transformation to the political affairs of the city itself, which, with this building, became a major player in national politics. A befitting expression, I have only now come to learn in this visit, personifies the transformation which occurred in the city: “to tremble like the old town hall”. This simile captured the dilapidated condition of the Old Town Hall at the time, the Broodhuis, which had been built on top of an old canal. Today, approaching four (and almost an extra half) centuries later, the Town Hall is a compromise between modernisation and tradition. With frequent renovation and restoration, the Town Hall strikes a nice balance between old and new, inscribed with the history of the past and an eye towards the future. One such change is made of steel. This inexpensive metal skeleton was revolutionary in a variety of its implications – particularly that it eliminated the risk of fire which had brought down the old when Spanish Soldiers set alight its timbers in retaliation over an unpaid bill. Just a little bit dramatic?

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My mum had been raving on about this gin cafe from her youthful years for days now. She spoke of how we had intended to visit it a year prior, but ignorantly overlooked the street corner and we ended up at the wrong location by mistake. This year, this afternoon, she was a woman with purpose and insistent (relentless!) on finding “De Vagant” for a shot-sized serving of flavoured genever. Alas! On Pelgrim Street opposite the Bruene Gans, which we had settled for last year, materialised my mother’s objective. A tan leather booth lined the right wall, its shiny surface gleaming with the worn material which had seen many a happy bottom in its day. Above this single seat hung tin placards and framed posters that featured advertisements of Oude Genever by hallmarks I had never encountered at my local Bottle-O. A variety of gin was stored in tall cylindrical bottles of every colour in a mirror-backed shelving display, and hand-painted plates were featured on the same wall with the same advertisements, but not hung quite as straight. A shot for mum (the kind you’re supposedly supposed to sip at????) and a mixer for myself comprised our first aperitifs for the afternoon. We departed De Vagant with the resolve of returning in a matter of days in the company of my father, and found ourselves a little seat at an ashamedly touristic brasserie which skirted the Groenplaats Square.

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I am guilty of the fact I that have never followed sport in my life. My parents never followed sport hence I grew up in what might be considered a very un-Australian family due to their unapologetic ignorance to the world of competitive physical activity (duh, we’re Dutch!). Following this trend, I have never attended an elite level game or watched a live match on television. This, however, is about to change. Tonight will break the life-long drought! This evening marks the last primary tournament in the European Football Championship. The image of Antwerp in front of me is what I imagine a footy game on the home ground would look and feel like. All across the Groenplaats, youth clad in red shirts sporting the Red Devils logo and a multiplicity of crazy hats can be seen around the plaza. The area across from where we ate our dinner had been obstructed from our view by black canvassed fences which enclosed a large screen that had been constructed during the day. Whilst I was surprised at the sudden costuming of the antique plaza, I acknowledge my ignorance considering only earlier that day, I had found amusement in the grand billboard of a bulldog in a red-yellow-black afro wig sporting the slogan NOG MEER FUN! It was a sign of the times: a soccer-supporting puppy dog claiming “EVEN MORE FUN” was to be had with (insert whatever capital investment), bannered across the gables of city houses from 1579.

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After shortly inspecting the scaffolding bordering the plaza, I settled down into my seat next to mum and the tall glass of sangria I had ordered as aperitif. I handed her one of two visors I had collected from a promoter, and secured the other around my own head in good spirit. I didn’t stay very long at the cafe called The Post for I had contacted a friend, or two, in the light of the Euro Cup. Before I had returned from our hotel, where I went to change, my family friend was exchanging niceties with my mother. He was the son of my fathers’ friend from his business-school days, and a holiday companion from when our two families vacationed in Bali. The route to the Noordkaai, or Northern Quay, was flocked with football fans in the colours of the country. Like fire licking the trees in a forest, yellow and red enveloped the concrete jungle, where it soared and roared, fuelled by raw anticipation of the game. We congregated into an open theatre tenfold the area enclosed by the scaffolding at the Groenplaats, and exchanged our tickets at the bar for sweet cherry beer.

The Euro Cup 2016 group stage round between Belgium and Sweden, literally, kicked off. The raw suspense kept the sport fans still and on the tips of their toes as as they craned their necks to view the jumbo screen. The two teams were fair adversaries, matched in skill and stamina so that there was little, if no, indication whether one would pull ahead of the other to win the game. The first half finished with no lead. Step for step, both Belgium and Sweden were playing the defensive so the ball traversed the field from one to the other with what appeared to be little purpose. The game resumed. Whilst there was no change in activity on the field broadcasted from Nice, leading to an inkling of boredom on my part, the tension increased as the minutes counted up to 90. Only 75:00. Then 80:00. Shit. With only five minutes to go, I asked Cedric what would happen if the last five minutes ticked by in the same manner as the past 85. 86. It was a certainty, at this stage in the game, a few extra minutes would be added to the clock to compensate for wasted time in referee decision making, and a series of penalty kicks were likely too. 87. Hope for a win in the designated time of this group stage game had all but sunk to the bottom of my stomach, and that of the supporters around me. 88. I was struck off guard. A roar had surmounted from the pits of the crowd as the Red Devils charged across the field in a series of calculated strikes towards the goal. A kick! Deflected by the Swede at the left back. And again! The ball rebounded in the direction from which it came and sailed past the left back, who had not yet been able to reset his stance, and into the goal. Fireworks! Confetti! The tune of “Freed from Desire” (see footnote*) played over the speakers and beer was flung into the air in celebration! The allocated 90 minutes were over before the Red Devils had finished celebrating their score, and the extended time was finished before the audience in the amphitheatre had settled once more. The win was awarded with more fireworks and a proud chorus of “We are the Champions” by the congregation of supporters. Belgium had made it to the next round.

*Will Griggs on Fire
In what can arguably be regarded as the theme song of the Euro Cup 2016 Soccer Tournament is “Will Griggs on Fire”, a song appropriated from the melody of “Freed from Desire” by Italian singer Gala. The athlete on which the tune is based, Will Griggs is a striker for Champion Club Wigan Athletic, representing North Ireland at an international level. The irony that he played not a single minute throughout the tournament made for a tongue-in-cheek chant, and a jingle that i heard time and time again over the course of my time in Belgium.

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