We’re flying to Belgium tonight, to see Lieve’s family and friends, and look into the requirements for emigration.
This is my fourth trip to Belgium, and the first time I’ll be on a direct flight to Brussels. For some reason it was less expensive than flights with connections. Air travel is getting weird, when I flew to Texas last time I ended up in First Class on the return flight.
Every year we try to do something on our own, one time we spent a few nights in Brugge, last time we visited Amsterdam. We usually meet friends in Brussels at least once, we’re aiming to meet at a concert by an old friend of Lieve’s this time, and maybe a trip to Paris.
Our first trip was just a short Christmas visit, it was in theory our honeymoon. We married earlier in the month, and it sounded so nice to spend Christmas in Belgium. Lieve told me to bring my winter coat, it can get cold, but rarely snows. We left the evening of 23 December.
Our itinerary was Newark to Frankfurt to Brussels, with a three hour layover in Frankfurt. When we arrived in Frankfurt it was snowing, and a lovely white Christmas was in store. We had been waiting at the gate and I didn’t see our flight on the monitor, and there was no personnel at the gate. After a bit we decided maybe there was a problem, but neither of us are very strong in German, so we sought assistance.
Apparently, the snow was pretty bad for that part of the world, although it didn’t look like much out the window. Planes were missing connections and the customer service desk was swamped. When we finally got to the front of the line, we were told that international passengers had to go to another desk. We waited in line there, and found out that Brussels was closed. From the intonation I got the impression that the entire city, not just the airport, was no longer open for business. They told us to go to yet another desk for information.
There we found that they were substituting rail tickets. There is a rail station in the airport, and we just needed to go to one more desk to get our tickets. We would be taking a train to Cologne, on to Liege, and then to Brussels. The next train was in half an hour, and it looked as if we might arrive in Brussels before our plane would have. Oh. Baggage? They’ll call us about it.
The train was a little late, but compared to American trains it was luxurious. As we entered Cologne, the snow was piling up, at least a few inches were on the ground. It had not occurred to me that if they rarely get snow, this might be a lot for them to deal with. One winter in Dallas we had about three inches and everyone was putting chains on their cars. In Cologne we found that the scheduled train to Liege had been cancelled. We went to the help desk, where you draw a number. We were 98. The sign said “Now Serving #12” in German. At least the numbers were universal. We were re-routed through Aachen. This was turning into an adventure, working our way through Germany on Christmas Eve. As we waited on the platform, packed with other travelers trying to get home for Christmas with children, presents, and luggage, it felt a bit like some “Last Train Out” scene. A train pulled up on one track and everyone rushed for it, and Lieve heard a conductor say, almost to himself, in German, “That train is going to Aachen too” pointing at another track. Thank goodness she understood that much, we were able to get a seat.
Aachen was a fairly nice stop, there was food and drink available. We had left home about 1300 EST, or 1900 local, the day before. The last food we had was at the airport in Frankfurt, so we grabbed some sandwiches and a bottle of wine. The platform was freezing, so we spent as much time downstairs in the warmth as we could.
From Aachen we went to Welkenraedt, where we changed trains to Verviers. It seemed things were calming down, getting into something of a routine, we would still make it to Leuven before dark. When we stopped in Verviers we had to wait while they checked the lines ahead. From what we could gather (at least we were in an area where people spoke Flemish), this was the worst storm anyone could remember. We headed out on the last leg to Leuven, the snow seemed to be slowing. All we had were our carry on bags with some Christmas cookies and the bottle of wine.
We got a ways down the track, and the train stopped. The lines were down ahead. We sat there, with no word if we could even go backwards. Lieve had been attempting to sing Christmas carols all day, she has difficulty with lyrics, and by now she was having trouble with melodies. We considered walking back to Verviers. I wondered just how long it would take to freeze to death if I just wandered into the woods. I opened the bottle of wine as we started to eat the cookies.
The train backed to Verviers, and the couple we had been talking with said they had a friend who could pick them up and drive them to Rotselaar, which is where Lieve’s brother lives. We asked if there might be room for us, and they never said another word to us. While we were waiting in the train in Verviers, another train pulled in. Some people on that train came over to ours, and then we heard that the other train was going on to Leuven. Maybe. We had a seat, and were not quite ready to change trains on a rumor. There are no hotels in Verviers, and on Christmas Eve in the middle of a storm we might be safest if we spent the night on the train.
Finally a conductor (outside the train, there was no room to move on board) said our train would be going on, and there was a rush from the other train to board ours. I was glad we had stayed on.
We arrived in Leuven about 1900 local. We had been traveling for twenty four hours, and hadn’t slept in even longer. It wasn’t a terrible surprise that the buses weren’t running, and being Christmas Eve we realized that there would be no taxis. Interesting thing about the age of cell phones. There are no longer any public phones, and our American phones don’t work in Europe. Lieve was able to convince a worker at the train station to allow her to use his phone, and a friend of her parents was kind enough to venture out in the snow to pick us up. We made it before Christmas.
The storm was indeed the worst in almost fifty years. twenty five centimeters (ten inches) of snow. Roofs of churches collapsed, and the entire country was affected. We had a wonderful visit, and I finally got a “real” Belgian Waffle. Our luggage never found us, and the stores were closed on Christmas Day, so we made some adaptations but were able to buy new clothes before the flight home. As we were preparing to leave, there was snow in Newark. We arrived to a fresh twenty five inches, but New Jersey knows how to deal with snow and the roads were clear for our drive home.
Oh, and our bags? On 6 January we went to a concert in Philly, and couldn’t find parking near my old apartment so we decided to drive back to Princeton. When we got home, we received a call that our bags would be delivered in a few hours. At 0130 on 7 January they arrived, still filled with the Christmas presents we had taken to Belgium. So the next summer, we had Christmas again.