Antwerpen, Belgium

Thanks to the EU teacher mobility program, I got to spend a few days in Belgium, teaching at a college in Antwerpen. It has been a long time since I was in Belgium, I have really only ever been traveling through. But since we have this exchange program, lots of their teachers have been to our school, and my best friends moved to Antwerpen this summer, I decided it was time for me to visit there.

My first impression: how on earth do the handicapped get around in this place? Construction is everywhere, the traffic is wicked, the trams have a big step up, and the houses are only about 6 meters wide (but 3-4 stories high), meaning you go up and down stairs a lot. I suppose this is good for the heart, which will help burn off the calories consumed when you enjoy some Belgian foods such as frites (not to be confused with French Fries) or those wonderful pastries made with a ton of butter. The Belgian beers are quite something, I had a nice Trappist beer on tap from a microbrewery, it was actually very good.

The Belgians eat sandwiches for lunch, it seems, as that was about the only thing (beside fattening pastries) that you could get at the school cafeteria. The international office plied me with pots of coffee as I used one of their computers during breaks (many colleagues were off sick because of this flu going around Europe). We made great food then in the evening, then being so full we could barely roll ourselves up the stairs.

On Friday one of the colleagues who had often visited us (and who is now retired) gave me the grand tour of Antwerpen and the little town he lives in. Since the weather was so nice, he drove me to the sculpture garden Middelheim, which is open free of charge. The town holds a sculpture contest every year and purchases the winners for display in these gardens. There are sooooo many wonderful sculptures here, it is hard to tell which is my favorite. Some are funny, some are sad, some are haunting, some are puzzling. I could spend days here. I took a bunch of photos, uploaded them to Flickr. The one I labeled with "naked" had about 15 views within the first couple of minutes. People must have a subscription to this key word.....

The little town we visited, Lier, was very quaint, much has been rebuilt or survived the bombs. The town has the "three B's" that a Belgian town needs - a belfry (to call out the troupes in case of attack), a convent-like place for rich people to park their daughters called a Beguinage, and a brewery. A river runs through town, apparently the fish market is still used once a week with fish being sold from boats (although after seeing the harbor water on the Schelde where the atomic power plant and all the shipping is, I don't think I want to have fish any more).

The most fascinating place in Antwerpen was the printing museum, one of the oldest and largest printing houses in Europe was situated here. The original house has been restored and is chock-full of printing stuff and old books. As the daughter of our friends said: They have more books here than you have! indeed, and they have some very valuable ones like the Biblia Polyglotta, a Bible printed in 5 languages at once. The stencil-and-die for my favorite typeface, Garamond, was on display (on account of it being made here), and some guy called Rubens (yes, that Rubens) used to make book front pages and painted lots of the family members here. There were some copies on display, too: how on earth did Rubens manage to catch the sparkle of light? It is so very clear which ones are from him, what genius.

On the way back to the airport we took a detour through the harbor. This is the price for our prosperity, a horrible landscape. Oil is refined right here, there are lots of chemical plants, the harbor of Antwerpen shifts the second largest amount of tonnage a year in Europe. We walked around the fort of Lillo on the Schelde, you can walk out on a bridge a good ways into this tidal river. The waters churn beneath you at a fast pace, switching direction every 6 hours. This is not a good place to go swimming, the undertow is ferocious.

So many nice things I didn't get around to seeing - I guess I'll have to come back!

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