Back from Brussels
I'd like to be grumpy about Brussels, but I can't. It turned out to be a beautiful city, filled with chocolate and beer. Hmmmmmm......beer. Plus, my departure allowed me to leave at a time when my ENTIRE FAMILY was down here. Happily for me, Becky and Aaron were here, along with our non-functional stove and our blocked up toilet.
OTOH, the trip too and from Brussels was annoying as anything, and I am grumpy about my lack of hot food until the British Airways meal on the return flight home. Yum good.
But briefly from the beginning. Wed. I wondered if I was going to get off at all, as Bill developed a new and unexpected crisis and had to come down here (no, no detaiuls are forthcoming) and my car wouldn't start to get me to the airport. Happily, our housemate Greg, who was supposed to drive me, got AAA to jump start the car and get me an hour late. Thanks to my travelling light and the automatic check in, I was able to just make it to the gate for my flight to Brussels.
I utterly failed to take any for pleasure reading, so I spent the 7.5 hour flight reading industry stuff and watching "Beauty Shop" as the only reasonable inflight movie. United's system and choice of movies really bites. Landed in Brussels about 7 a.m. local time thrs, got to the hotel, crashed out about 9 a.m., hearing chearing crowds in London over the previous day's news about the 2012 Olympics.
Imagine my surprise at 2 p.m. when I awoke to see a very shaken Blair and the rest of the gang of 8 going on about the terrorist attack in London. Dreadful news indeed, but on emerging from my hotel at 3 p.m., I discover no signs of panic or hostility to the fellow openly wearing his kippah and speaking high school French with a really bad accent.
Alida Freidrich, a friend of ours, and her husband Ian, had visited Brussels previously. Alida has family in Antwerp and I think one or two relations in Brussels. Previous to our trip, I had asked them where the local kosher food was (if any) and other matters Jewish. Alida had even come over the night before I left to give me a half hour briefing and a map. Unfortunately, I ended up leaving all this in my dining room.
But I had the address of Brussels' 1 kosher resteraunt, Chez Giles, and, securing a new map from the concierge, I decided to make my way there a pied (or, as we tourists say, by foot). It was a long hike up hill, but (a) I like walking, and there is no better way to get familiar with a new city; (b) the weather was about 10 degrees and gray and drizzly, perfect Osewalrus weather (it is cool and keeps annoying people off the streets); (c) taxis are tres expensive in Brussels; and, (d) God invairably looks out for fools, small children, and Osewalrus.
In this case, no sooner had I begun to lose my way when I ran into one of the two people I knew in Brussels, my fellow Public Interest Registry Advisory Board member Erich Thomson. He helped point me the right way (up) and offered a pleasant diversion through the Royal Gallery (like Ben Yehudah in Yerushaliyim but with a beautiful glass ceiling)and the Grand Market (which is like Ben Yehudah). Wandering in a general way with the help of the map and my poor French (which, in desperation, started to bubble to the surface for the first time in 20 years, with the occassionally confusing bit of Hebrew or Chinese tossed in for good measure) and the help of people of Brussel's willingness to communicate with a visiting foreigner. (Brussels is a very international city. It is the seat of EU government and a major tourist center. The city ahs three official languages- French, Flemmish, and German, but many folks speak at least a bit of English, Russian, Japanese and other languages. They are better at it than most of us in DC, although I try to be nice to the occassional visiting tourist asking which way is the WhEEEt HOWs or the, how do you say? CONgrease.)
In any event, wondering past the Palace of Congress, the Museum of Musical Instruments (which I visited on Friday) and taking a turn by the Royal Palace and Brussels Park (Brussels is very pretty, with a large number of small parks tucked away in various places, although Brussels Park is a decent enough size), I noticed on the map provided by the hotel a site several blocks away called the "Communitee de Juif de Brussels." What the heck, I decided, and sountered down, pausing during a particular heavy bit of rain in the art museum.
The combination of delays brought me to the Grand Synogogue of Brussels (since that is what it was) just at Micha time. Fortunate for me, as it allowed me to make contact with the local Jewish community, as I could never have done at all. As my ancestors of old did, we communicated primarily in Hebrew rather than in my poor French and their poor English (although one or two managed it quite well). From them I found that Chez Giles was close, but closed at 5 p.m. (and would not open until 10 a.m. the next day) and that Shabbos would not start until 9:38 p.m. They also told me which products I could buy in the local super market and which chocolate is regarded as kosher.
Happily, a local Hagendaaz substituted for Chez Giules, and a local shop sold pistachios and a few other necessaries like Coca-Cola Light (as Diet Coke is called there). Friday I davened with the local community again (barely a minyan both days, and the fastest daveners I have ever met. I am not sure if many in the community actually daven, as the chazan recites the amidah aloud without any repetition (rather than the Congregation reciting it silently and then the chazan repeating it). I was probably the youngest person there. OTOH, I missed a bar mitzvah on Shabbas, and was told that approximately 50 people attend the services on Saturday.
I provisioned myself for shabbos at Chez Giles. Again, Hebrew was the common language. I bought some fish, some goulash, chopped liver, challah rolls, excellent pastries, a few bottles of French wine and had a glass of nana tea with a chocolate croissant. All excellent. I also purchased some dates with marzipan, but these proved too rich for me. All told, about 70 Euros (1 euro was about $1.20 when I was there), which isn't too bad. Brussels is a fairly expensive cities, with prices comparable to NYC or LA. But the woman did not take credit cards, so I had to scurry to the local ATM to get more cash.
To wrap things up (since I have substantial work to do) I bought a fair quantity of chocolate (Cote D'Or is the kosher brand, it is now owned by Kraft). I also bought a fair quantity of fruit lambics, a type of beer made exclusively in Brussels, of which I am rather fond. Shabbos was o.k., as I needed to attend several meetings and dance my "I'm not working on shabbos because I'm not doing any actual m'lacha, I'm not getting paid for this, and I am always willing to tell other people how to live their lives" dance. I returned home Sunday on British airways, which ahs both the best kosher meals ever and the best in flight entertainment. They had a "si-fi" channel equivalent which has a complete episode of the new Dr. Who (very much enjoyed and want to see more), a Next Gen Ep (one I hadn't seen, fairly late ep with everyone devolving into animals as a consequence of a shot given in the teaser to Barclay. I'm sure someone here can tell me the name of the episode. Spot had kittens then turned into a lizard, if that helps.) And a B5 episode (which I loyally tried to watch, but it was Paragon of Animals from Season 5). Also got to see Million Dollar Baby, which I've wanted to see for awhile.
All in all tho, the best thing about going was I got over my Europhobia. Growing up in Jewish day school, I learned that Europe was full of goyim who exist solely to hate Jews, have pogroms, steal our property, and kick us out, and then invite us back so we can do it all again. All culminating in the Holocaust. Combine this with my general reluctance to go where I don't speak the language, and I never really wanted to go to Europe.
Now, however, it doesn't look too bad. And they do have good beer and good chocolate.