Belgian vacation log, Part 1 (posted 9 June 2006)

Friends, I hope that the past few weeks have treated you well. Janice and I had a good time during our recent trip to Europe for the baptism of my niece Ava. Here’s the first part of my vacation report.

On Thursday, 25 May 2006, Janice and I flew from Boston’s Logan Airport to Dulles International Airport in Virginia, where we had a five-hour layover at the United Air Lines hub. We then sat on the runway for an additional two hours due to a mechanical problem.

Fortunately, the remainder of our travel to Belgium was uneventful. I read a stack of newspapers and a few issues of Wizard magazine. Janice read several mystery novels, including The Italian Secretary. Caleb Carr’s Sherlock Holmes pastiche was a good imitation of the “Hound of the Baskervilles,” but not as tightly plotted as The Alienist.

Janice and I also watched a few in-flight movies (more on that later) and tried to sleep. We then took a train from the airport, changed lines in Brussels, and were met in Brugge (Bruges in French and English) by my father and the gracious proprietor of the Hotel Egmond.

Rather than succumb to jetlag, we dropped off our bags at the Aramis suites and met with the rest of the U.S. contingent: my parents; my younger brother Peter, his wife Kelly, and their daughter Ava; Kelly’s mother Maureen; and Franco & Alice F., Ava’s godparents-to-be. My immediate family and Maureen came from Virginia, and Frank & Alice came from New York, near where Peter and I grew up.

We ate lunch and began walking around the cobblestone streets of Brugge, which has kept much of its medieval architecture and ambiance. Horse-drawn carriages took small groups of tourists (mainly British, Francophone Walloons, and a few Germans and Americans) past bistros, quaint houses, and leafy courtyards. We were a little tired that Friday night, but the later sunsets there (10:00 p.m., compared with 8:00 p.m. in New England) threw us off more than the time difference.

On Saturday, May 27, we piled into a rented van and automobile, and Peter and my father drove south to Kortrijk, the town where my father’s brother is a priest. We went to the church of Father Damian (a missionary who attended to lepers in Molokai, Hawaii), where we met the Belgian branch of my family.

In addition to Father Guido, or Uncle Do, my father’s sister Miet was there, as well as her adult children: Tom, Jill, and Lien. Tom just opened a hotel on the coast and is married to Pascale, with one daughter, Marie. Jill works in Brussels, where she lives with son Elias and boyfriend Roberto. Lien has taken over the Didakites business from her late father and is married to Louis, with two kids, Jerome and Justine. My cousins’ children range in age from 4 to 13.

My father is the eldest of his siblings. Tom and Jill are about Janice’s age, and Lien is younger than us but has the oldest children. Ava recently passed her first birthday, and my parents had traveled to the Philippines to celebrate the 80th birthday of one of my mother’s sisters.

Unfortunately, the French branch of my family couldn’t attend, since my father’s other brother, Jan, a baker in Bordeaux, was in Corsica for the recent wedding of his daughter (my cousin) Katje. Janice hopes to see her own family in Upstate New York or eastern Pennsylvania later this summer.

Ava’s baptism went well. Uncle Do did the blessings, aided by godfather Franco. I gave one of the scripture readings, which was fortunately in English. The entire family was joyful at the happy occasion for a reunion, and the younger cousins entertained us all.

We were given a brief tour of the church, rectory, and community center, which continues the good works of Father Damian. Due to pilgrimages, my uncle spends much of his time in Italy and was even planning a trip to Brazil. A cocktail hour and lunch at an upscale restaurant followed, and we changed into more casual clothes and dodged the rain to reconvene in a local pub later that afternoon.

Speaking of rain, while not as devastating as the past month’s worth of deluge in New England, the weather in Belgium was cool (50s F) and damp, like the climes of Great Britain or the U.S. Pacific Northwest. While a bit depressing at times, the showers didn’t stop us from seeing anything. I channel-surfed through local music television only once.

Since many museums and shops were closed or had shortened hours on Sunday, we took a canal cruise when the sun briefly shone that morning (see my Yahoo photo site). We also walked past antique vendors, an old fish market, and numerous churches, several of which held art treasures from the past 800 years.

For example, near the Markt (market square) and Burg (including the Belfort, or clock tower, and city hall), the Basilica of the Holy Blood contains a vial of blood-crusted cloth said to be that of Christ himself. As an amateur scholar of Holy Grail legends and coinciding with the premiere of the movie adaptation (to mixed reviews) of the popular and controversial “Da Vinci Code” book, this was timely.

Janice and I had missed a procession the preceding Thursday featuring people in medieval garb celebrating the arrival of the vial from the Holy Land (either Jerusalem or Constantinople) during the Crusades. My father, Maureen, and Frank & Alice did go to that pageant, which also featured the reenactment of scenes from scripture and history.

However, we did get to see the relic because of the holy day, and we also admired the Romanesque, Renaissance, and other layers of art in the church itself. We also got to see in the Church of Our Lady a statue by Michelangelo of the Madonna and Child that was the only work of his to leave Italy during his lifetime. Janice and I walked through the Groeningemuseum, mainly through the galleries of early Flemish art by Jan Van Eyck, Hans Memling, and Hieronymous Bosch.

On Monday, May 31, we had to cancel our plans due to Ava’s worsening ear infection, Kelly’s throat infection, and Maureen’s strained ankle, not to mention continued rain. Originally, my parents, Janice, and I were going to drive through the Flemish countryside, visiting dairy farms, a cheese factory, and World War I battlefields, while Peter would take the rental van with Kelly, Ava, Maureen, and Franco & Alice into Brussels for sightseeing and shopping.

At the reception following Ava’s baptism, my cousin Jill had invited us to dinner at her place in Brussels. While Kelly, Ava, and Maureen would stay back in Brugge, we would go into the capital of the European Union for museums and another family gathering. My aunt Miet also invited us to come out to her place in the port of Oostende.

However, Janice and Alice found that many museums in Brussels are closed on Mondays, and since Peter wanted to stay with his ailing wife, daughter, and mother-in-law, taking the train for souvenir shopping was looking less attractive.

My mother also wanted to stay close to the patients. After driving around late one night in search of an after-hours pharmacy, Peter & Kelly ended up calling doctors to visit (with help from the hotel staff; if only such house calls were still available in the U.S.) three times, mainly for Ava.

While we hated to disappoint Jill, Roberto, and young Elias, the U.S. party ultimately decided to stay in Brugge. The so-called Continental breakfast offered by the Hotel Egmond was an understatement, featuring pate, prosciutto, and waffles. Swans and other waterfowl floated gracefully through the Minnewater park near our hotel, some convents, and manor houses.

As it turned out, the weather improved briefly, and we did most of our souvenir shopping (mainly chocolates for co-workers) in town. I have never seen so many chocolate stores in such a small area, each featuring unique culinary delights. We also took cold cuts back to our suites to save money on some meals.

In addition, we went to an interesting chocolate museum, which featured its history from the Mayans to European aristocrats to small-scale manufacturing. Of course, there were free samples… Janice and I later popped into some bookstores. We also enjoyed the other local specialties: beer, seafood, cheeses, and frites (misnamed “French fries” by U.S. soldiers in World War I). The food and service were consistently excellent!

While Janice, Frank, and Alice went to the diamond museum, I went to an impressive comic book store. In Europe and Japan, graphical storytelling doesn’t have the children-only stigma it does in the U.S.; on the contrary, many titles are for adults only in a number of genres. Everyone decided that the lace museum was too far to walk, but Janice and I caught a demonstration. Uncle Do and Tante Miet joined us for another pleasant dinner.

In my next installment, I plan to discuss Janice’s and my side trip to the city of Ghent before returning across the Atlantic Ocean, recently viewed movies, and the belated start of summer in the Boston area. In the meantime, take it easy, -Gene