Wednesday, September 21, 2011
Finally having the right currency, I boarded the shuttle bus to Antwerp. The seats were very comfortable and the ride was very smooth and pleasant. The view out the window was beautiful. Once we got outside of Brussels, there were lush, green fields and fields of corn stalks that looked nearly ready for harvest.
After about a forty-minute ride, the bus let us off in the middle of town. It was as I grabbed my luggage from the storage area under the bus that the thought hit my sleep-deprived brain: I had no idea how to get to my hotel. And I had no cell phone service, so I couldn’t call anyone; nor did I have wifi service for my iPod, so I couldn’t pull up directions on Google maps. In a word, I was totally hosed. There were tons of little restaurants and sidewalk cafes within a stone’s throw of the bus stop, so I was hopeful that someone at one of these eateries would a) speak English, and b) know how to get to my hotel.
I showed him the address on my reservation confirmation printout, but the gentleman standing outside the first restaurant I approached spoke very little English and had no idea where the hotel was. I walked across the narrow street to the next restaurant to find someone a bit more helpful. He was rather fluent in English and, while he himself was unable to point me in the right direction, found someone inside who had a general idea of where I needed to go. They sent me off with a few vague instructions and a couple of landmarks to keep an eye out for.
I walked a couple of blocks, crossed a few streets, and could not see a single landmark the kind gentleman from the restaurant had told me about. I was lost. Up ahead I saw a Dominos Pizza and figured if anyone could point me in the right direction, it would be an American pizza delivery service. I asked the young man behind the counter if he knew where my hotel was; he said to keep walking up the street I was on until I reached the Porsche showroom, then to go another block and I’d be there. So I continued to trudge up the street; hot and sweaty, tired and hungry. After about an hour and what felt like several miles of walking, I came to the Porsche dealership but could not see my hotel anywhere in the vicinity. I stopped one more time for directions, and this person was able to get me to the right place.
I checked in at the front desk of my hotel and rode the elevator to the fourth floor to my room. I dumped my stuff onto every available flat surface, and then found myself engulfed in a raging internal battle between hunger and exhaustion. I had had nothing to eat or drink since the muffin on the plane some six hours ago, and I had only gotten maybe two hours of sleep since leaving Los Angeles. Eating would mean taking a shower and changing my clothes, having to go back out into the city, exchanging the rest of my American dollars into Euros, and actually finding somewhere to eat. Sleeping would mean taking off my shoes, lying down on the bed and closing my eyes. As hungry as I was, the desire for sleep won out. I removed my shoes, flopped onto the bed, and was in a deep sleep in a matter of minutes.
I woke up some two hours later – about 3:30pm local time – and showered and finally changed out of the clothes I had been wearing for the last 24 hours, and then headed downstairs to ask the receptionist for help in getting my bearings on this new city. She showed me on the map where to find a Western Union to exchange my money, as well as how to get to the café I would be going to later that evening.
I ventured out to exchange my currency and find food (it had now been about ten hours since eating that blueberry muffin on the plane). It felt very surreal to be walking the streets of Antwerp; everything looked and felt so different from home. I did the best I could in my hungered, sleep-deprived, disoriented state to soak in the moment. After finally locating the Western Union and watching my dollars vanish as they changed into Euros, I wandered around looking for somewhere to eat. Most of the cafes didn’t start serving dinner until 6:00, and that was too long to wait, so I settled for a little Persian place a few blocks from my hotel. The only item I could recognize on the menu was a hamburger, so I ordered a burger, fries, and a couple bottles of water. It wasn’t bad but wasn’t great, but by this point I was too tired and hungry to care.
A few hours later, I went out again for the pre-conference get-together at Café De Muze. The café was maybe a mile and a half from my hotel, but it was located in the heart of the old town area which consisted of numerous unmarked streets and alleys, which made it very easy to get lost. I ended up circling several blocks very near the café before asking two young ladies for directions.
I was one of the first to make it to the café, and when Toon – the conference host – arrived, we found a table and ordered the first round of drinks. Over the next hour or so, most of the other speakers and attendees arrived, and we had to move from our large circular table to a much larger booth in the corner. Since many of those in the group already knew of each other through Wallace-l, there really wasn’t much of that awkward I’m-not-really-sure-what-to-say-because-we-just-met conversation. It felt much like meeting up with old friends, and the conversation was simply delightful. We shared stories of our misadventures in traveling to Antwerp and many told their “how-I-stumbled-upon-the-writings-of-David-Foster-Wallace” stories. We talked of college courses we had taken, classes we had taught, and somehow the conversation never wandered far from the works of Wallace. The hours and the drinks went rather quickly, and the fact that I had maybe four hours of sleep under my belt was finally catching up to me. Plus I didn’t much like the idea of walking back to my hotel that late at night (it was approaching 10pm). The surrounding area appeared safe enough and most of my walking route was made up of major streets, but I didn’t want to take any chances in a foreign city 7000 miles from home with no cell phone reception.
I said my good-byes as I was the first to leave, even though I had not yet finished my beer. As I made my way back through the narrow streets toward my hotel, I found the nightlife of old town Antwerp quite charming, full of sidewalk cafes brimming with life and frivolity – and clouded with cigarette smoke. It just seemed like a cool place to hang out with friends.
Back at the hotel, I sent home an email – it was early afternoon back in SoCal – posted an update of the night’s activities on Twitter, and got ready for bed. I fell asleep rather quickly at about 11pm, but was wide awake about two hours later. After lying there for a good fifteen or twenty minutes, I tried all the usual tricks – using the restroom, getting a sip of water – but nothing. I sent and received several emails to and from Tanya, complaining about my inability to sleep and hearing about her day with the kids. Being the middle of the day back home, it was nice to have someone to talk to in the middle of the lonely night, even if it was only via email. I did manage to get a few more hours of sleep before waking up for good at about 3:30am. I admitted defeat and turned on the lights and television, and prepared myself mentally and emotionally for what was sure to be a very long day. Hopefully a really great day since the conference started in about five hours, but a long day nonetheless.
The only English-language channel I could find was the British feed of CNN, which brought a harsh dose of reality as I watched coverage of the impending Troy Davis execution in Georgia. The Supreme Court had denied his appeal, and the state of Georgia was proceeding with the capital punishment. I knew there was a lot controversy surrounding the case, and I didn’t know many of the details, but it makes me grieve to see a man – whether guilty or innocent – die at the hands of the state.
I spent the next several hours flipping through mostly Dutch- and French-speaking channels, waiting for the clock to reach a reasonable hour to actually begin my day.
 Aside from the graffiti on nearly every overpass and signpost in the city. It seemed to me rather odd to see all this Belgian graffiti, of which there was even more when I got into Antwerp. But it didn’t seem to carry the same sort of gang / territorial connotations that it does here in the US. It was just sort of there.
 When I saw these restaurants’ names and menus posted outside of them, I was surprised at how multicultural the local cuisine was. Sure, one would expect an Italian restaurant or French restaurant in the heart of Western Europe, but Indian food, Mexican food, and an Afghanistan steakhouse?
 This whole time I was thinking, I am never going to audition for The Amazing Race. I don’t care about the million dollars; I now realized that it would be far more agony and frustration than it’s worth. It sounds exciting to travel the world and looks fun on TV, but I now have complete empathy for those exasperated looks on the contestants’ faces as they try to navigate through foreign cities.
 While the name is the same as its American counterpart, there were some distinct differences between the two. First, the cook behind the counter dropped the patty into the deep fryer to cook the meat instead of slapping it onto the grill. It didn’t taste particularly greasy when I ate it, but I could certainly feel the deep-fried-ness a few hours later. Second, there was an entire side salad atop the burger patty. The cook didn’t stop with the lettuce, tomato, and onion. There was also red and green cabbage, shredded carrots, and cucumbers. Normally I like my burgers very plain, but all this extra stuff was actually quite tasty. Or again, I was too hungry to care.
 On my way to the café I passed by two different tattoo parlors, which I took as a sign that my wanting to get a tattoo during my trip was indeed the right choice. See, I had wanted to get a tattoo for awhile, but never had the guts to do it. So as I was preparing for my trip, I thought that it might be fun to commemorate my first literary conference with a literary tattoo (“This is Water” tattooed on my wrist). I mentioned this to my wife on the eve of my trip, and she sort of blew it off as a bunch of hot air (I often come up with these crazy ideas, but then chicken out and don’t follow through). In one of her emails earlier in the day, she said she had told our heavily tattooed friend about my aspirations, and her (i.e. our tatted friend) response was that I’d better not chicken out, almost the equivalent of a “double-dog-dare.” So I had a couple of days to psyche myself up for this, as I would wait until one of my sightseeing days to actually get inked up.
 I was reluctant to order it in the first place and drank it very slowly since I had had very little sleep or food in the previous 24 hours. I’m not a very big drinker anyway, and my migraine medication tends to react in funny ways to things like alcohol. And I didn’t want to complicate matters with my lack of sleep and empty stomach. I wanted to avoid the two extremes of bringing on a full-blown migraine and finding myself passed out in the street from drinking too much.
 This was probably one of the hardest things to get used to in Antwerp. Everyone smokes over there. I spent five days stepping on discarded cigarette butts and breathing in second-hand smoke.