Timeline: October 29th – 31st
After another fine breakfast we set out on our final full day in Europe, headed for a northern suburb of central Antwerp and the Red Star Line Museum. Opened in September 2013, this new state of the art exhibition shows the other end of the Ellis Island immigration experience.
During the great migration to the United States and Canada between 1873 and 1935, the Red Star shipping line brought around two million immigrants to New York City and they all started their journey by sea in Antwerp. Transporting luxury passengers and cargo as well, by the 1930’s many of the migrants were Jews fleeing the Nazi regime in Germany.
In the red brick warehouses that are now home to the museum, emigrants were subject to humiliating health exams, had their clothes and luggage fumigated, and waited patiently while their paperwork was processed. For nearly three hours we traced the history of the Red Star line and its passengers, examined many artifacts from the time period, listened to the personal stories of a broad selection of individuals who had made the journey, and looked inside models of the ships that brought them here.
We finished up our tour, refreshing ourselves with a cup of coffee at the café in the museum along with sandwiches we’d put together from our breakfast, then wandered back towards the center of town, stopping first at a well appointed bike shop. We had an engaging conversation there with one of the shopkeepers, who proudly showed us his personal Kona Titanium cross bike (frame by Lynskey, former owners of Litespeed) as we discussed the relative merits of disc braking systems and bike riding in general.
While walking to Handschoenmarkt Square to pick up some souvenirs, we stopped at a waffle shop (amazingly enough, we’d not had one since the shared experience our last night in Amsterdam with Beverly) for one with chocolate sauce and whipped cream, washed down by a nice cappuccino. We continued on to Groenplaats to pick up metro tickets for later in the day, located our restaurant choice for the night, De Groote Witte Arend (a Steve’s recommendation) and returned to the Alegria to complete our packing for the flight home.
It was a relaxing afternoon, enjoying a couple of beers we picked up, working on the blog, getting the suitcases configured for checked baggage and carry-on. Before we knew it the time had slipped away and we departed for dinner, walking a couple of blocks to the nearest metro station to take the number three line back to Groenplaats. De Groote Witte Arend is just a few blocks off the square and we briefly considered sitting outside in their charming patio, but with the evening cooling down headed inside and upstairs to the main dining room.
Seated for dinner, we began with a couple of Belgian ales, savoring the flavor and body we’d been missing during our journey through other countries drinking the predominant beer type of Europe, the pilsner. We started with the soup of the day, a hearty onion, not too dissimilar to what you might find in a French Onion soup, but without the other trappings. We also enjoyed the Rabbit Flemish style cooked with Westmalle Trappist.
The large serving which included tasty potato croquettes, was more than enough for the two of us and its rich flavor, with lots of meat on the bone to pick off and enjoy made for a thoroughly satisfying meal. Having had the waffle earlier in the day, we passed on dessert but enjoyed a couple more beers, then hopped on the metro for a swift ride back to the Alegria.
Up early the next morning, Rob thoughtfully prepared a quick breakfast for us (it was earlier than the usual serving time) and a little after 7:30 am we loaded our luggage into a taxi for the ten minute ride to the train station to catch the hourly 10 Euro shuttle bus to the Brussels airport. Arriving 45 minutes later, we quickly checked in and then waited in a long, but moving, line to get through passport control.
We were a little concerned about what we would encounter as we had heard a month or so back that European Union regulations limited the length of a tourist’s visit to 90 days without a visa. How we had managed to overlook this requirement is a matter of speculation, also considering that the many folks we interacted with prior to the trip (shipping agents, airline personnel, etc.) never mentioned it.
When I approached the agent he starting flipping through the pages of my passport with a puzzled look on his face, then asked me how long we’d been here and when I replied nearly six months he asked if we’d been working. I said that we were just tourists and he stated we were only allowed to stay 90 days. He got on the phone and had a brisk conversation in Dutch with someone on the other line, so we couldn’t ascertain what our outcome would be, but secretly hoped that they wouldn’t make us stay longer for overstaying our welcome.
He finally disconnected and advised us that he was going to let us go this time but we needed to take heed of the requirement in the future. We thanked him profusely for his kindness and made our way through an immense duty free shop, stopping at a large chocolate kiosk to spend the all but 20 of the last of our cash Euros.
Chocolate in hand we breezed through the security checkpoint, took our place in line at the gate (as we were close to boarding time) and with a few minutes to spare, unloaded 15 of our Euros at the Starbucks next to our gate, scoring two pounds of coffee for about what we would have paid at home. Our flight to D.C. went smoothly, except for a malfunctioning seat back entertainment unit that compelled me to get a lot of reading done.
Clearing passport control and customs at Dulles was the quickest such experience of all of my travels, taking no more than twenty minutes from beginning to end. With more than an hour until our connecting flight to Charlotte, we stopped in at a bar to have a beer. This is when it hit both of us that we were back in the States.
Not being able to speak the language when abroad, although often a disadvantage, brings the benefit of not having to listen to everything happening around you. Random conversations, the television, announcements on the loudspeaker all blend into a pleasant kind of white noise, washing over you like a peaceful wave, lulling you into a blissful state of ignorance. Joanna mentioned it first, about being able to hear again as we could now understand folks talking around us, the football game commentary on the plasma screens, gate changes and report to security announcements on the loudspeaker.
Our flight out of D.C. was delayed about an hour but it’s a short hop to Charlotte and the time flew by. While waiting outside the terminal after claiming our luggage (our niece Kristen was picking us up) we were hit by the second realization that we were home. Pick-up trucks. Big ones and small ones, short cabs and extended cabs, long and short beds. This type of vehicle is a rarity in Europe; you might see one every other week. Not so here in the land of $3 a gallon gasoline. It was good to be home.
Red Star Line Museum: http://www.redstarline.be/en
Kona Rove TI: http://www.konaworld.com/rove_ti_frame.cfm
De Groote Witte Arend: http://www.degrootewittearend.be/
Antwerp Airport Express: http://www.airportexpress.be/page?pge=4&ssn=&lng=2
Long Stay Visa: http://ec.europa.eu/immigration/tab2.do?subSec=38&