Arriving home in snow covered Beerse, where the usual breakfast pistolets
(sandwiches) and charcuterie
spread was awaiting us, felt great. The thought of not having to think about what to do next and let the agenda largely be decided by others was simply exhilarating. Since we had been able to catch a good amount of sleep during our flight, we went to nearby Turnhout during the afternoon to soak up some of the Christmas atmosphere in town and, most importantly, have some Westmalle trappist beers in the good old Cafe St Pieter
and Den Beiaard
. When we got back home, I found to my great surprise the house ready for a big party celebrating my "landmark" 30th birthday (which would officially take place on December 20th). Every single family member (and even Santa) showed up later that night. We tried to catch up with all of them (except for Santa, who seemed in a hurry) and share some our travel stories. However, as always, time was too short and the fantastic Breughel
buffet provided a tasty distraction.
On my actual birthday we went for a long night walk at De Liereman
, a local nature reserve. Belgium had been witnessing the fiercest winter since the end of World War II (confirmed by my grandfather) and it had turned De Liereman
into an amazing winter wonderland. Under the leadership of my uncle Carl, who occasionally guides tour groups in the reserve, we hiked our way through the wonderful, moonlit snow landscape and learned more about the history connected to some of the places we passed by. I had been there many times before in the past, but I had never experienced the area in this manner and for the first time I was stunned by the scenery we encountered. We ended the tour, which had pushed our body temperatures dangerously low, with some heart-warming jenever
(schnaps) at my uncle's house.
The next day I had been gearing up for a small family dinner at Glenn’s restaurant in Antwerp. My birthday had passed so I was not expecting any more surprises. As we were waiting to be seated in the restaurant (a Bolleke
De Koninck beer in hand), all my long-time Belgian friends all of a sudden started to trickle in. Even the mob from Ghent showed up on this Tuesday evening! Katheryn had been the mastermind behind the scheme, which she apparently had set up right in front of me during that laidback afternoon in Cairns. I had not seen this coming at all and was totally taken by surprise (though I did find it strange that my friends had not been responding very enthusiastically to the usual inquiries I sent them shortly before our arrival). We ended up having an awesome time (that is until my mother started sharing memories of my childhood) and looked forward to more to come.
After the birthday celebrations, Christmas preparations (read: shopping) kicked in. Along the way we made some family visits. Christmas eve was celebrated quietly at home with a nice fondue, while on Christmas day we enjoyed my mother’s legendary Pentaat
(a guinea fowl stuffed with apples). It is very sad we get to enjoy this divine meal only once every two years. Katheryn helped with the preparation of the dish from start to finish, so I trust she has now fully mastered the recipe. In the evening we met up with rest of the family for a sandwich spread at my aunt and uncle’s. In addition to participating in the traditional family quiz, we placed our bets for when my cousin’s highly pregnant partner would give birth to their first child.
Shortly after Christmas, we visited the open air museum in Bokrijk, which displays village life as it once was in rural Flanders, and we undertook a skiing trip to the highest point in Belgium, the Baraque Fraiture
. Unfortunately, the rest of the country had the same idea that day. After a 2 hour drive and lining up for more than an hour to rent the necessary ski equipment, we found the slopes (run by volunteers) a total zoo. Not only were (mostly first-time) skiers crowding the few slopes, dozens of pedestrians and their pets deemed it appropriate to cross our ways. At the bottom, wait-time to be pulled back up was about 45 minutes. We ended up going down the hill one more time before we called an end to the lunacy and drank away our disappointment with a tasty La Chouffe
in a bar nearby.
Prior to New Year’s eve, the men of the family attended the local soccer derby Lierse – Westerlo (2-1). It was my first live soccer game in many years. Although these are two of the weaker teams of the Belgian First Division and the level of the game was pretty mediocre, I loved the folksy atmosphere around the pitch. It reminded me of the days when much of my social life revolved around FC Turnhout (a Second Division team that went bankrupt a number of years ago). We also visited my brother’s place in Antwerp, where we had dinner at Chez Fred
and drinks at Het Pater’s Vaatje
(a classic Belgian beer bar) and De Vismijn
(a local joint). Not only did I discover a nice Belgian beer (Hopus), I also very coincidentally ran into one of my soccer mates, Tom, from the Flanders House Team in New York. I was told we did not make it to the play-offs this season. Bummer.
On the last day of the year we took the Eurostar to London to visit my former roommate from graduate school, Steve, who had invited us to celebrate New Year’s eve with him and his Spanish girlfriend, Johanna. Travelling more during our break from travelling was not foreseen, but it would have been a pity to miss out on this opportunity. Moreover, I shamefully had never been to London, so I could finally fill this gap in my travel record.
Next (unexpected) stop: London
When we finally arrived in Amsterdam Airport around 6.30am on Sunday, December 19th, heavy snowfall had left the airport in a state of chaos with hundreds of bags of stranded passengers scattered all over the place. Thankfully, our check-out was smooth. Since my parents rightly decided it would be suicidal to try to drive up to Amsterdam, we took the first available Thalys train to Antwerp where my dad would pick us up by car.