Saturday, August 8, 2015

No Waffling in Belgium

After a leisurely week on the Gullet it was time to get back to the business of being Senior Nomads. First on the list was continuing our efforts to get Russian Visas so we could visit that country before  heading back to Seattle in September. We had tried several different approaches while traveling  including pleas into the intercom box at the Russian Consulates in Paris, Prague and Budapest. We believe what they said in Russian was "Go Away".

How many times do I have to say no!
In reality we knew you had to apply from the US, and obviously that wasn't possible, but Russia was so tantalizingly close that we racked our brains for a solution. Then, Michael remembered there was a a fellow Seattle Rotarian named Bill Robinson who traveled to Russia often and sent him an email asking for advice. He recommended we contact a company in Seattle called Red Star Travel. Michael jumped on the case and connected with Albina Netchaeva, one of their visa specialists! It would require filling out forms and sending our passports (gulp!) back to Seattle for a couple of weeks for processing, along with a sizable check but we decided to go for it. 

It wasn't too difficult to be exiled for two weeks in the land of waffles, chocolate and beer!
Since we would be without passports for two weeks, so we decided to camp out in Belgium while we sent our passports home and waited for our visa applications to be processed. Besides, by taking an Airbinb in Brussels we could host our 5 year-old grand daughter Colette for a week during a school break and it was easy for Mary to deliver her from Paris.

Colette loving her first class train journey to Brussels and excited about delivering the FT to Grandpa!
Our first apartment was about a 15 minute walk from the center of the city. Our lovely hosts, Elsie  and Irena were a delightful couple. They lived just down the street from our place (Elsie's brother's apartment) and when we arrived invited us up for drinks and delicious appetizers while they shared their favorite parts of the city. In addition to their day jobs they host occasional dinner parties in their apartment for travelers who love food through this website: As a welcome for us they prepared small plates of salad made with diced green apples, cucumber and red onion tossed with yogurt and dill topped with melt-in-your-mouth smoked mackerel fillets. So simple and so delicious! Here's a link to our apartment:

Our lovely Brussels hosts, Elsie and Irena. They were the best!
We had two days before Coco's arrival so on the first day we took the free walking tour of the city to get oriented. That night,  Michael set his alarm for 1:00 am and got up to cheer on the US Women's soccer team as they beat Japan 5-2 in the final of the Women's World Cup from Vancouver. Later that morning he caught-up on his sleep while I shopped for kid friendly provisions and made a photo scavenger hunt on my phone at Brussels main square, the Grand Place. Our hosts arrived to fuss over  Colette's bedroom set-up and lent us a great a game to play - Tumbling Monkeys!

We played Tumbling Monkeys many times - if you have a 5 year old, get this game!
Coco and Mary arrived by train and we had an hour with Mary before she headed back to Paris. I was pleased Coco didn't seem at all concerned about her leaving and easily settled in with us. She did have one night where she truly did miss her mother and shed some tears and had a few hiccuping sobs, but after some excellent back rubs by grandpa she fell asleep and was up early the next day asking for Honey Nut Cheerios.

I had a great time creating photo scavenger hunts on my phone. This lovely goose was high up on a building.
This Royal pup was stitched on a pillow in a shop window.
On our first day together we headed to the city for our scavenger hunt. The next day Michael was able to visit the European Union Headquarters and visited the Parliamentarium, an interactive exhibition that explains the inter-workings of the EU. Admission is free and he recommends it for anyone interested in recent European history and current events.

Michael heading to the EU interactive exhibit, a highlight for him in Brussels.
Coco and I played in the park and had a fine day out. But mostly we wanted to get home to play Tumbling Monkeys, the card game Happy Families and put the jigsaw puzzle together with Grandpa. If it sounds like I was in "Mooma Heaven" that would be true.

Fun at the royal park - nothing like a little fountain spray on a hot day.
The puzzle masters at work!
Soon it was time to pack up and catch the train to Antwerp where we had booked our second week in Belgium. This time, the rest of Coco's family would join us for a few days. Because there would be seven of us, we rented what looked like a fairly large and lovely house. Having said that, I may have fallen in love with it without fully understanding the layout. Here's the link:

Me standing in front of our latest Airbnb - the narrowest house in Antwerp.
Michael taking the half empty bags upstairs. Most everything else was taken up bit by bit.
With Colette in tow, Michael and I opened the front door and discovered, as our host proudly shared with us that we had rented "the narrowest house in Antwerp!" I knew the minute we walked in there would be serious challenges ahead. It truly was narrow, only 8 feet wide by four stories tall. That turned out to be 78 tight and winding stairs to navigate several times a day by tiny humans ages 1, 3, and 5, their parents and two Senior Nomads with hip and feet issues -all with no banister along the last open stretch to the main floor. And even though we were hoping Jacques might take his first steps while he was with us, we also didn't want his first one to be his last.

This was taken as the Mary's family were leaving, thankfully all in one piece!
When we weren't concerned with safety hazards we could appreciate the quirkiness of the house. It opened directly onto a pedestrian-only shopping street that made for a great play area (when it wasn't raining) and it felt like we were living in Antwerp 100 years ago. Except 100 years ago the alley behind the house wasn't covered in really cool graffiti. I quickly made another scavenger hunt that Marcel could master along with Colette. They both had eagle eyes!

The alley around the corner was perfect for another scavenger hunt!
Here's the first image of about 20 for the kids to find!
This was Marcel's favorite.
 Antwerp is an easy walking city and we found some great "dragon houses" as Marcel calls churches - and we even found a giant statue featuring several fire breathing dragons, a severed head and arm, a frog and savage women with water spewing from their mouths. Everything a three year old boy could ask for.

Climbing on the scary dragon statue in the rain.
Mary had been here before and had a few places she wanted to revisit including a take-away restaurant called Chips. Now the Belgians would argue there are no "French" fries and that in fact that delicacy was first created in Belgium. Chips is one of the finest preveyors of this deep fried dellicasy in the city so we loaded up with enough to feed twenty people along with seven different dipping sauces and called it dinner.

we devoured five  of these "small orders" of fries. Enough to fill a kitchen sink!
Jacques had the best vantage point for our long walk to the port.
The puzzle team hard at work.
Just outside the door was a great place to kick the ball with Grandpa.
Having survived "The crazy house" as Colette called it for three days, it was time for Mary's family to catch the train back to Paris. Michael and I still had a few days left in Antwerp. We'd heard from Red Star back in Seattle that our visas had been issued and that our passports were on their way back - Nostrovia!
Our precious passports returned. Thank you FedEx!
Russian visas secured! Now we could plan our trip.
The next day I spent an afternoon at the famous Antwerp Zoo. It was a lovely place to spend a summer afternoon - but once you've seen the Woodland Park in Seattle it's hard to appreciate anything else. The next Belgian experience had to be a dinner of Moules Frites. Mussels with French (Belgian Fries) a national specialty. As a seasoned traveler, I knew not to seek this dish on the main tourist routes - but even on the back streets this simple meal cost $25.00 at a minimum. I had a better solution - make it at home with local ingredients. A fine result was had with $7.00 worth of ingredients - it was a Senior Nomad moment.
I arrived just in time for the hippos to have lunch!
Speaking of hungry hippos ... my home cooked mussels were the best.
On our last day we took the train to Bruges. This city was almost too perfect - sweet canals dotted with swans and weeping willows reaching from their banks as if to take a drink. Beautiful brick-row houses proudly wearing their construction dates from the 1600's. Horse drawn carriages clip-clopping on the cobbles, traditional Belgian waffles with burnt sugar edges - and a 50% off sale at H&M. An excellent day out.

Continuing the eating theme - that would be my decadent Belgian Waffle on the left. Michael's on the right.
Back in Antwerp Michael headed to the Fedex pick-up facility and returned with our precious passports complete with our newly minted Russian Visas. We have several Eastern European stops before arriving in Moscow and St. Petersburg next month. Learning more about recent history of this part of the world has been fascinating, and Michael often says "we're taking a graduate course in 20th Century European History".
When we are done with this next month of travel we will have earned one of these!
Our next stop would be Cologne, Germany for a two day "pit stop" as we moved further down the game board towards Macedonia, Bulgaria, Romania and Moldova before exploring Mother Russia. 

Thanks for following along!

Debbie and Michael
The Senior Nomads


  1. Thank you for sharing your wonderful adventures!

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