Saturday, September 24, 2011
Knowing that I had the whole day with nothing planned and that the breakfast buffet didn’t end until 10am, I saw no point in setting an alarm Friday night, especially since I had gotten back to the hotel so late after dinner. I think I dragged myself out of bed at around 8 or 8:30 on Saturday morning, showered, and was eating breakfast a little after 9am. I took my time and went back for seconds and maybe even thirds, checking my email and Twitter feed as I ended my meal with a large slice of fresh-baked bread with chocolate spread and savored the last of my cup of decaf coffee.
As I strode out of the hotel lobby – belly full and spirits high – I headed off toward the old town area in search of the University bookstore. I did the best I could to follow the directions on the map, but the many crisscrossed unlabeled alleyways on the map made it difficult to pinpoint the exact location of where the store was supposed to be. I walked in circles and double-backed and checked my map over and over for a good hour or more.
Doing my best to not get completely lost, I turned down yet another seemingly familiar street – they were all beginning to look the same at this point – that could have been the right one, and found myself walking straight toward the Town Square. It was like nothing I had ever seen before in real life. Sure I’ve seen plenty of movies that take place in centuries-old cities in Europe and I’ve sat through long, boring slide shows of friends’ trips to Europe, but I’ve never stood there myself to take in the majesty of such a sight. The Town Hall building with its many flags gently flapping in the wind and golden statues atop the roof. The fountain statue surrounded by tourists posing for pictures. The lively, crowded cafes that lined to perimeter of the Square. A live band playing on the street corner for tips. And looming above it all, the steeple of De Kathedraal. It would take a writer far better than I to adequately describe what I experienced in that moment.
I wandered about in the large, open Square, snapping picture after picture and soaking in the glory of it all. But the map I had shoved into my pocket in order to hold the camera soon reminded me that I was on a mission. I looked around the Square and saw nothing that resembled the university store I was looking for. But in one corner was a tourist information station. If anyone could help me complete this task, surely it would be them.
No such luck. The gentleman behind the help desk seemed to have trouble understanding what I was looking for exactly, so I left to simply explore more of the Old Town area. If I happened to find this elusive shop, great. If not, hopefully I would at least have a good story to tell.
My wanderings led me back to the familiar ground of the streets near De Muze café where I first met the other conference attendees a few nights before. About a block down the street from the café was a small clothing store with a variety of “I (Heart) Antwerp” t-shirts, sweatshirts, and tank tops in all sizes ranging from toddler to adult XXL. I picked out t-shirts for my daughters and a tank top for my wife. I knew she would love it.
From this quaint little clothing store, I headed over toward De Kathedraal whose steeple rose to 123 meters – roughly 400 feet – above the surrounding buildings. On my way I passed by one of the several tattoo parlors I had seen a couple of nights before. I was tempted by the rather empty-looking lobby of the parlor to stop in for a quick inking, but I opted for a visit to De Kathedraal first.
I entered to visitors’ entrance of De Kathedraal, paying my €5 to the ticket-taker. From my first steps inside the nearly 600-year-old cathedral, a sacred stillness came over me. I spent the next hour walking all around the place of worship, observing and taking pictures of the many stained glass windows; the paintings by Peter Paul Rubens depicting the life, death, and resurrection of Christ; and the altar at the far end of the church. This was truly holy ground upon which I tread. I paused on several occasions to just sit in one of the thousand chairs to just take in the majesty and sanctity of this place. For the second time today I was at a complete loss for words to describe my sensory input and the subsequent experience of the sublime.
I finally pulled myself away and exited through the gift shop, purchasing a “My First Bible” in what I presumed to be Dutch. I thought my girls would think it was cool; and who knows, they might teach themselves a foreign language as they try to read it.
Back out in the plaza in front of De Kathedraal, I stopped by a few more shops. I saw a touristy t-shirt shop that had a “University Antwerpen” sweatshirt hanging in the window, and after a lengthy conversation with the very friendly salesman, the shirt was mine. The quest I set out on that morning was complete. I visited one of half a dozen chocolatiers in the plaza to purchase the delicious Belgian chocolates I was obligated to bring home. Then having been on my feet for several hours now and having worked up a bit of an appetite, I paid a visit to an ice cream stand. My “lunch” – for it was now after 1pm – consisted of a scoop of some of the best chocolate ice cream I’ve ever had in a handmade waffle cone and a liter bottle of water.
With a fuller stomach and some much-needed hydration, I decided to venture back to the tattoo parlor I had passed on my way over to this neighborhood. What better way to commemorate this incredible adventure than with some fresh ink? When I arrived, the artist was finishing another client. The wait gave me an opportunity to psych myself out and chicken out. But I stayed put and waited my turn. Surprisingly, I was not all that anxious about the pain that awaited me. Soon enough, it was my turn to go into the back room. The artist traced the lettering onto the stencil paper, and then applied the stencil to my right wrist. Needle in hand, he started on the “T,” asking me if the pain was too much. It felt as though he was slicing into my skin with an incredibly sharp razor blade, but no, it didn’t hurt too bad. In only a few minutes, he was finished. I handed over my €50, and left with the words “This is Water” permanently printed on my wrist and covered in cellophane.
As I tried to find my way back to the main street running through town, I had to look down every now and then to see if I had actually done it, if I had actually just gotten my first tattoo. But sure enough, there it was. I couldn’t wait to get back to the hotel and email my wife to tell her. She knew I was considering getting one, but she didn’t think I would actually follow through with it. This was going to be one of the times this week that I would be very bummed that my cell phone was not working while here in Antwerp. I was sure her email response was going to be priceless, but I really wished I could break the news over the phone.
I finally stumbled upon a street name I recognized and followed it back in the direction toward my hotel. Along the way, I stopped at a grocery store to get some food for the evening. Once back in my hotel room, I dumped my bags and packages – I had accumulated quite a few souvenirs during my excursion – and wrote that email to my wife to tell her about my adventures. It was about 8am back home in Southern California, so she was sure to see it and respond quickly. My email to her read in part as follows:
Well I just got back from quite a day of sightseeing. I went to the old town area and to the city square and to the cathedral. The sights were incredible. I took lots of pictures, particularly in the cathedral.
I also spent lots of money. I got shirts for you and the girls and chocolate for us and for your parents. And at the cathedral I got a children’s bible in Dutch (i think) for the girls. I had a scoop of yummy ice cream. And I got my “this is water” tattoo. It didn’t hurt too bad and turned out pretty cool. Now C– can’t say I’m a chicken. 🙂
Within a matter of minutes – before I had even finished my egg salad sandwich – her very surprised reply came back. She couldn’t believe that I had gone through with it. Oh, how I wished I could have shown her in person that afternoon, or at least told her over the phone. But I had to settle for email. I then tweeted about my very permanent souvenir, which got a number of responses from my friends.
After having my online fun, I finished my dinner and settled in for the evening. It was early still – maybe 6pm at this point – but it had been a very full day and I still had not fully adjusted to the time change, and I was tired. I turned on one of the few English channels on television, got out my journal to catch up on my writing, and sent a few more emails back and forth to my wife. Eventually I would be tired enough to turn off the lights and television and go to bed.
At this point in my trip, I was almost sad that I still had another day here in Antwerp. The conference was incredible. I’d had my fun sightseeing and getting inked. But now I really missed my family. I couldn’t wait to see them again, but I still had about two days until I would get to be with them again.
 But I certainly wasn’t going to take another Benadryl. I wanted a good night’s sleep, but I also wanted to actually wake up the next morning.
 Since breakfast came free with my hotel reservation – and food outside my hotel did not – I wanted to take advantage of this and try to save as much money as possible. Getting a late start like I was, if I played my cards right, I could have a late lunch / early dinner and only have to pay for one meal for the day.
 I started a tradition* several years ago that anytime I travel to a college town, I buy a sweatshirt from that local college or university. I mentioned this to Toon after the close of the conference the day before. He said the bookstore was not on the campus, but several blocks away in Old Town. One of the other attendees – who was from the University – showed me the approximate vicinity of the store on my map of the city before we all left the campus to head out for drinks.
*I don’t know that it qualifies as a “tradition” if I’ve only done it one other time. When my wife and I spent a week in Hawaii several summers ago, our hotel was only a few miles from the local community college. I resisted the temptation to apply for a teaching position – actually relocating to the island of Kauai was not realistic – and settled for a sweatshirt instead. But I decided after that trip that if I traveled to other college towns, then I would buy a sweatshirt.
 And, at times, made it difficult to pinpoint my exact location. I had become somewhat familiar with the layout of the city – or at least parts of it – over the last few days, but the combination of the aforementioned narrow streets and the street name signs being rather small and attached to the sides of the corner buildings made it very easy to lose one’s basic orientation.
 Insert “sarcasm” sign here. I knew that she would appreciate the gift, but that she would appreciate the ironic humor in my buying it for her even more. While she was excited for me about this great opportunity, she was understandably not too thrilled about me being gone a third of the way around the world for a week. Nor was she thrilled with how I had let preparing for the conference become nearly all-consuming. I had spent too many an evening at this computer writing and revising and editing and re-revising my paper for the conference. Yeah, I had gone a little overboard with the whole thing. So the shirt would be a nice ironic reminder of all I had put her through to get here to Antwerp.
 Probably best to seek divine counsel before making such a permanent decision as this.
 I wouldn’t put it past my two daughters. I’m not just saying this because I am their dad and I am supposed to say things like this, but my kids are freakishly smart. No, seriously. They really are.
 On the drive to the airport, my father-in-law handed me a twenty and said that since I’d have trouble getting Belgian beer through customs, he’d settle for a box of chocolates. After sampling several candies from the box I bought for my own family, I think it was a reasonable substitute.
 I had brought two designs with me: one an armband of footprints with my daughters’ names woven into it, and the words “This is Water” in an old-school typewriter font. I’d have loved to have gotten both, but I grossly underestimated the cost of a tattoo. When I heard the price of the “This is Water” tattoo, I didn’t even bother to ask what the other would cost. That one will have to wait until after I am done paying off this trip.
 Although my frequent and severe migraines has greatly increased my pain threshold, sharp pains like the one I was anticipating have proven to be a formidable foe. The first time I got my ears pierced in college, I nearly passed out from the pain of cleaning and twisting the one in my upper ear cartilage.
 I had heard from my friends with tattoos that they do hurt, and this artist warned me ahead of time that the inside of the wrist is one of the most sensitive pieces of skin on the body, but it actually wasn’t too bad. I couldn’t bring myself to watch him actually do it – which is a whole other issue – but the pain was tolerable.
 I told you they weren’t cheap.