Impulsively, we pounced on cheap airplane tickets to Brussels last week. My Turkish foreign exchange sister’s younger sister lives there with her Belgian husband, so we took the chance to visit them and add another country to our experience (though not to our passports. It pains me to flip through my ever-better-traveled passport and see no new stamps. Add that to the growing list of reasons to dissolve the EU).
So, we left early Tuesday morning for three days in Belgium. Our objectives were to get to know Gözde and John better, admire Brussels, and drink lots and lots of delicious Belgian beers. By Thursday evening, we had obtained all three of these, and returned home happy and tipsy to our hosts’ apartment, ready to pack up and prepare for our Friday morning flight home to Berlin.
John greeted us at the door, inquired about our day’s adventures, and recounted some of his own. Then, casually, with no cause for alarm, added incidentally, “Also a volcano is erupting in Iceland, and the airport is closed.”
Dazed, but happy to spend an extra day with the Belgian beer, we rescheduled our flight for Saturday afternoon. In Europe, when a flight is cancelled, the law requires airlines to offer passengers a choice between rescheduling and a full refund. Making the most of our bonus Friday, we visited the Atomium, a World’s Fair relic like the Eiffel Tower that reproduces an iron crystal at 165 billion magnification.
The Belgian royal family lives in the park abutting the Atomium (how could you live anywhere else? Iron is magnetic, you know. Although at their extra palace in central Brussels, one room has a ceiling bedecked entirely with green moth wings.), so we peeked at all three of the family palaces, for the reigning king and queen, for the dowager queen, and for the heir apparent and his new wife. Back in Brussels’ quaint medieval center, we took the opportunity to drink more beer, and returned home happy and tipsy to our hosts’ apartment, ready to pack up and prepare for the morrow’s flight home.
Well, such an easy exit was not to be. Ash suffused the sky, and the airport remained closed. This time, we scoured the internet for alternative transport. Eager travelers had already booked all the rental cars and driven train tickets to exorbitant prices. The only course of action seemed to be to learn French and apply for a job at the EU. As Gözde observed, “It’s time to find a bigger apartment!”
Just before I settled in with my French grammar book, Aaron discovered a website listing one lone driver with two spaces left in his car travelling from Brussels to Berlin Sunday evening. We flung ourselves at this glorified hitchhiking escape from Belgium. By doubling the length of our trip to Belgium, we got to add the nearby villages of Bruges and Ghent to our itinerary, we got to eat many more Belgian French fries and waffles. Furthermore, we ate mussels in Brussels. And we ate Brussels sprouts in Brussels. Our particular lucky situation also allowed us to eat much more Turkish food.
And of course, we doubled our beer tastings.
Aaron even found a sample of the elusive brew from the Westvleteren monastery where the monks don’t officially offer beer for retail. To obtain bottles, one must call two weeks ahead, give one’s license plate number, show up on the appointed day and receive exactly one case of the precious beer. The bottles don’t even have labels. We split one precious bottle of Westvleteren 8 (not 12, which is rated as the most delicious beer by two beer-rating websites) among the four of us. It’s complex taste reminded me of wine. Aaron gave it his highest praise. “It’s not overrated.”
Sunday, with the airports still closed, our driver Dennis picked us up on schedule and drove us sedately along the autobahn at 140 km/h. Instead of murdering us, he showed himself to be approximately the cheeriest German I’ve ever met. Of course he lives in our neighborhood and works as an airplane mechanic. We’ll probably meet up for a beer sometime, if I can every bring myself to drink the German beer again. We are so tired of the incessant pilsner here.
In the final tally, the volcanic calamity treated us quite well. We ate, drank, toured, and socialized more, and we made a new friend. The one glowering ash smudge on this sunny picture is that my friends who planned to visit this week, a visit I have been looking forward to all year, are stuck in the United States.