￼￼As booked months in advance through Orbitz, we would fly from Charlotte to Philadelphia on Friday afternoon and from Philly to Brussels Friday night. We would arrive in Brussels at 8:00 am their time, and, after a 3 hour lay-over in the airport, we would continue on to Bilbao, Spain, where our son would meet us. Two weeks before our trip, however, Orbitz notified me that Brussels Airline had cancelled the flight that would be completing our long day of travel. We were, they said, now booked on a flight leaving the following day. Our 3-hour layover in Brussels had turned into a 27-hour layover.
Although I was initially annoyed, it didn’t take me too long to see the silver lining. A bit of desktop research revealed that Brussels is a popular tourist town which might possibly offer the world’s best chocolate, beer, waffles and fries. It has a central area, called the Grand Place, which offers remarkable architecture and interesting tourist streets. As the capital of Europe, Brussels’ weekdays are filled with thousands of government bureaucrats who stay in nice hotels, but they go back to their home countries on weekends, and the prices of those nice hotel rooms come ￼￼￼￼￼￼down under a hundred euros. Soon I was looking forward to my Brussels layover almost as much as I was to our trip to visit our Erik, his lovely wife Marga, and our two year-old granddaughter, Nora.
Google told me the Brussels airport had luggage lockers which would hold our two suitcases, so we decided to pack Sunday’s clothes in our carry-on luggage, and leave our suitcases at the airport until we returned the following day. We found the lockers on floor zero, as advertised, and after stowing our bags, we proceeded down to floor minus one, which was where the train station was. Betsy paid about 8 euros for a ticket which would provide both of us with round-trip coverage, and we boarded the train after a 5 minute wait. Twenty minutes later we got off at the Bruxelles-Central Station, took the stairs up to daylight, and looked around. I was pretty sure from my Google Map street-view browsing which direction we needed to walk, and about how far to go before we made a turn. We saw a sign pointing in the direction of the Grand Place, and a few minutes later Betsy spotted our goal, the Royal Windsor Hotel. Located a block and a half from the Grand Place, it promised to offer a good place to sleep while still staying close to the action, and it delivered on that promise.
Nine-thirty in the morning was too early for check-in, so we left our carry-on bags there and walked unencumbered to the Grand Place. The architecture of the buildings surrounding the
￼square was even more remarkable than I had been led to believe, and I spent a lot of time looking up. The many street cafes were setting up their chairs and tables, and city workers were still picking up the trash from the night before. We found a small place which already had a few customers sitting outside, and we ordered a coffee and a croissant. When we finished, we meandered slowly back to the Royal Windsor where I was hoping to spend an hour lying down. Once again informed that our room was not ready, we decided to spend 90 minutes on a Brussels tour bus. That worked out nicely, although both Betsy and I nodded off several times between attractions.
Back at the Royal Windsor around 12:30, we found our room was ready. Betsy took a bath, and I collapsed on the bed for an hour. I didn’t want to sleep though, since I have found that I can recover fastest from six hours of east-bound jet-lag by not sleeping at all the night of the flight and the next day, and then trying to get a 10 hour sleep. Also, we had things to do in Brussels.
We started with the fries, with a topping of mayonnaise. You may know this as French fries, but the Belgian folks seem to think that France stole this from them, and that they make the best fries. I’m not a fan of mayo, but the fries were good.
￼Our next stop was a cafe on the Grand Place, where we watched the people passing by. Betsy had a glass of red wine, and I enjoyed a raspberry beer. Betsy was eager to practice her French, and when a woman sat next to her, she started a conversation with her. I was doubtful she would be able to pull it off, because it quickly became apparent the woman spoke no English, but she turned out to be a patient speaker and listener, and Betsy’s dormant French warmed up in the afternoon sun. Betsy’s new friend was waiting for her daughter, who was at a friend’s birthday party. In North Carolina parents might hold a child’s birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese, or maybe a go-cart track, but her daughter was being taught how to make chocolate at one of the many chocolate stores in town.
We decided to see the iconic statue of the pissing boy – Le Mannequin Pis – and I thought I knew at what angle to walk from the Grand Place, but after several abortive attempts to find it, we turned back for another quick hour-long rest in our hotel room. With very little energy left, we forged out on the street one last time, stopping for soup for me and a grilled cheese sandwich for Betsy, and also for some chocolate and beer to bring to Erik and Marga.
Soon though, we were back in the room, with no energy left. I took a bath, and we went to bed before 8:00. Sometime around 2:00 in the morning (8 pm in Morganton on a Saturday night) my iPhone went off, but we couldn’t find it in the dark in time to answer it, and no message was left.
￼We stayed in bed for 12 hours, sleeping for quite of bit of that time, and we both felt pretty good when we got up at 8:00 am on Sunday morning.
We stopped about a block away for a waffle and coffee. My Belgian waffle was very light and crispy, and heavily sprinkled with powdered sugar. My coffee was small, strong, and expensive, and included no refill. I asked our waiter before we left – in French, of course – which direction to go to find the little pisser, and he gave us enough instruction so that we were able to find the little guy within ten minutes. It was, of course, in exactly the opposite direction from where we had been looking under my direction the day before. The intersection displaying him was easy to see from a hundred meters away because of the fifty or so young Japanese tourists standing around taking pictures. Not to be outdone, we got pictures of the pisser, me and the pisser, the tourists surrounding the intersection, and even a larger version of the pisser who posed with Betsy outside a waffle shop.
We were planning on walking to the train station, but another couple was checking out of the Royal Windsor at the same time we were, and when the nice uniformed gentleman in the lobby asked us if we were going to the train station and would like to share a cab, we were happy to oblige. It may have been only four short blocks away, but it was partly uphill, and I had four bottles of beer in my carry-on. The driver seemed surprised when I told him we were going to ￼the Bruxelles-Central station, but he dutifully drove us the four blocks there. We spoke with the other couple along the way. They were actually going to a different train station in Brussels where they would take a train to London. English wasn’t their primary language, so I didn’t bother explaining to them about how heavy four bottles of beer could be when walking uphill.
We caught the right train, picked up our luggage on level zero, and proceeded to level 2, departures. Our flight to Bilbao was uneventful, and as soon as we entered the luggage collection area of the airport we saw our son looking down on us from the level above. The 45 minute drive along the coast from Bilbao to Colindres is always a pleasure for me, and this time was no exception.
It was great to see Marga and Nora. Marga is always welcoming, but Nora can be a bit cautious with people, and I wasn’t surprised when she didn’t dive into our arms. It took Nora a little less than a minute to warm up to her Grandma and pick right back up where they had left off, sitting on the floor and playing with their imaginations. To my great pleasure, Nora warmed up to me after ten minutes. For the next six days we had a lot of fun together.
￼The most incredible thing is her language. I knew that two year-old children were remarkably adept at acquiring language, but that knowledge didn’t keep my mind from being blown. My granddaughter spoke fluent English with us, seemingly understanding everything we said. Marga works from 7:00 until 3:00, and leaves the house before anybody else gets up. All morning long, and until we took her to her daycare at 1:30, Nora spoke nothing but English with us. When we are not there, she does the same with Erik, except during their 11:00 to 12:30 stroll through town, when they speak nothing but Spanish with the barkeepers (among whom she is well-known), storekeepers, and friends they encounter. At daycare (where nobody speaks English) and when picked up by Mommy at 5:30, Nora speaks exclusively Spanish, supposedly with perfect diction, and using proper tenses. Back home in the evening, she speaks primarily Spanish when talking with her Mommy and primarily English when talking with her “Poppy”. During the week we were there she spoke nothing but English at home until Saturday when her Spanish grandparents, and great-grandfather, who speak zero English, and Aunt (who speaks some) came to visit for the day. Then she spoke Spanish fluently back and forth with them, and switched at the drop of a hat to English when talking with us. She spoke practically nothing a year ago, and I found myself saying over and over again – sometimes aloud – “But she is not even 3!” What an amazing thing the brain is.
Spending a day in Brussels meant that I was a day ahead of my normal schedule when it came to adjusting to the Spanish time zone and to the Spanish lifestyle. The high-quality blinds keep the morning light out of the bedroom, and while I have trouble sleeping past 6:00 am in North Carolina, I have little difficulty sleeping past 8:00 every morning in Spain. Since Betsy is an excellent sleeper under almost all circumstances, I am fairly accomplished at dressing in the dark and slipping out of a bedroom. Except for poor Marga who must rise early and walk to her work as Quality Assurance Manager at a local anchovy packaging plant, I am often the first person up. It is never long though before I hear a sleepy and sometimes whiny Nora coming down the stairs with her father. She sits on the floor in the kitchen while he squeezes oranges, and becomes her normal happy self after her first sip.
We usually play together while Poppy sneaks in a shower and gets dressed. If her grandmother is up, there is never any problem, but if Poppy is taking a shower before Grandma has come downstairs, she will sometimes whine and call to him through the bathroom door. He tells her to be patient, however, and she seems to accept that.
￼Shortly after 9:00 each morning, Betsy and I take the elevator down to the street and walk to the bakery. There we buy three chocolate Neapolitans and two loaves of fresh bread. The walk home from the bakery only takes 3 minutes, but if the bread is very warm I find it impossible to keep from tearing a small chunk off the end.
￼Erik has the coffee made by the time we arrive home, with the french press only needing to be plunged to the bottom. The freshly-squeezed orange juice I get in Spain is the only time I ever have freshly-squeezed orange juice, and with every glass I wonder why.
While we eat breakfast, Nora wanders around, plays by herself, or sits at the table with us. When we are done, she uses my iPad to entertain me while Betsy washes the breakfast dishes, and then Nora gets dressed for the day. After some more crawling around on the floor playing with Grandma, we put on our coats and head “to the street”, as she says.
When there are no errands to run, and if the weather is mild, the daily walk might be along the waterfront. When the tide is out, the bay is filled with birds mucking around the acres normally covered with water. When the tide is in, the water comes almost to the walkway, and we frequently pass a fisherman or two. The walkway ends at the far side of the town, and we go back to the street and walk past all the bars and shops. Erik knows which bars serve the best free tapas, and at what time of day. He knows who charges 0.70 euro for a glass of red wine, and who charges 0.90 euro. He knows which place can be counted on for a plate of olives, and where you are likely to get a bite of tortilla. He also knows which bars have waiters and waitresses who know and like Nora, and offer her treats. So when we stop here or there on the way back through town on this day or that, we are not stopping and resting along the way in a haphazard fashion.
￼Eventually, every day, we end up at Susinos, the family grocery store one short block from their front door. There, Ana, who runs the checkout counter, greets us as we enter the door. We usually encounter the manager, Andrés, as we walk to the back, if he is not carrying home some patron’s groceries. Nora always heads to the back to see her friend Tona, who runs the produce department. Tona stops whatever she is doing, even if she has a line of customers waiting for her, and uses some handy bit of fruit to entice Nora to come give her a kiss on the cheek. As a proud grandparent watching this, my thoughts at this point always to turn to the poor folks waiting in line to be served and what they must be thinking as they watch Tona carry Nora in her arms around the store, cooing at the bananas and the strawberries. While I have seen this happen many times over the years, I have yet to notice any annoyance in the eyes of those left waiting. Mind you, only half the time do I see eyes that light up in recognition of Nora’s earthshattering cuteness, but the eyes of the other half remain stoically non-accusing. While Tona helps Nora choose another piece of fruit, I wander over to the butcher area, where I say “HOLA BRUNO!” Bruno, who along with his family lives in the same building and on the same floor as Erik, replies with a big smile and a loud “HELLO PAUL”. This is all acted out as part of our long- standing joke about how when people don’t speak the same language they raise their volume.
Around 12:30, Erik feeds Nora her lunch. This is usually soup, and may include meat or macaroni. Nora likes milk, water, and yogurt smoothies, and will often include olives, bread and cheese in her lunch. When she is done, her teeth are brushed and she gets a spit-shine, and then she gets walked to her daycare program, along with her stroller. At this point, the stroller is used more as a nap location when at daycare, although napping at daycare doesn’t seem to be occurring much anymore. As we enter daycare, Nora gets somber and teary-eyed, but she ￼￼￼￼￼understands inevitability (somewhat), and she gives each of us a hug and a goodbye kiss before sadly going into the room which is now, shortly after 1:30, filled with a dozen crawling, sitting, walking and trike-riding 1 – 3 year-olds.
When we spend weekdays in Colindres, the time between 1:30 and 3:30 is always fun. Nothing beats time with my granddaughter, but after spending all morning with her, it is nice to walk and talk just a little faster. The walk we take at 1:30 is similar to the walk we take at 10:30 or 11:00. Except for the bars we stop in, the walks may be almost identical. There are many fine bars in Colindres (50?), and the competition between them is fairly stiff. I applaud and support, with my voice and my money, as many of them as I can, and as often as I can. We never spend more than 20 minutes in any bar, and we never have more than one drink in any bar. Weather permitting, we sit at an outside table, watching the people of Colindres.
Marga gets off work at 3:00, and dinner is usually served at 3:10. Sometimes it is something Marga has made earlier and left in the refrigerator. Often it is something that Erik has made. It is always good to see Marga, and she is always glad to be home and to have work over with for the day. In past years, she had two hours off for lunch, and then had to return and work for 3 more hours after that, but by sacrificing her early mornings and going in at 7:00, she has been able to avoid that schedule. Generally before 3:30, Marga punches Erik and tells him he needs to go to work. Erik dutifully complies, and walks the 30 feet to his office where he puts on his headset and closes his office door.
When lunch (which always, when we are there, includes some more wine) is done, so am I. Either on the couch in the living room, or upstairs on a bed, I lie down to rest my eyes for a few minutes, and get up an hour later. At 5:30, it is time to go and get Nora. Marga usually performs this task, taking Nora for a walk, and playing at one of the many playgrounds in Colindres before returning home. When Betsy and I are visiting, Marga lets us do this. Nora runs into Betsy’s arms as soon as we enter the room, and she is glad to take our hand and head to the street.
We know Colindres pretty well by now, and we don’t always take the same route, but we generally wind up at Nora’s favorite playground. At this time of day it is usually dark, but the playground is lit, and full of children. Sometimes, it is a little too full of rowdy older kids, and Nora prefers staying outside the fence and just watching. When it is not too full, she likes ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼climbing up the slide, and sliding down. Her father lets her climb up the ladder too, and slide (with assistance) down the pole, but her Grandma and Grandpa don’t sponsor those activities.
Betsy and I like to stop at a bar on our walk home from daycare, and Nora is always amenable. While walking home one day, I asked Nora if she knew where the Tablón bar was. She said she did, and sure enough, when we turned the corner her arm flew up and she yelled “Grandpa, the Tablón!” It was still over 100 meters away, but her eyes are sharp, and it does have a sign. We like the Tablón, because they give you a big basket of peanuts and let you drop your shells on the floor. Nora doesn’t have enough finger strength to open some of the tougher nuts, but she is very independent, and she has developed a pretty effective table smash move which worked well for her. Betsy and I each have small glass of red wine, and Nora gets a glass of water. When our wine and nuts are gone, we walk the final 50 meters to their front door and take the elevator to the 6th floor. There Nora opens the door and runs to Poppy’s office to interrupt his work and hug his neck.
For me, a normal Thanksgiving means turkey and stuffing at my mother’s house. This year we did not have a normal Thanksgiving. The Spanish celebrate many holidays throughout the year, but the annual giving of thanks for when the Indians taught the Settlers how to live off the land is not one of them. Erik, however, works for an American firm, and he had the day off. At Marga’s ￼￼￼￼￼suggestion, the American citizens (Nora has two citizenships) piled in the car after breakfast and Erik drove us for 20 minutes to Castro Urdiales, a small coastal town to the East of Colindres.
The town was lovely, and the walk along the waterfront to the church/fort in the distance was enticing. We took a few pictures along the way. After visiting the church, we walked down into the old section of the town, where the streets were filled with small old bars. Some of them were putting out gorgeous arrays of tapas on their counter. Several times we succumbed.
We stopped for lunch at a nice restaurant. We didn’t select the menu-of-the-day option, since we had already been snacking at each of our last 4 or 5 stops. I chose artichoke hearts.
That evening Erik made a turkey pizza, and Betsy made some stuffing from a mix she had brought along in her suitcase. Wine, bread, and several kinds of cheese rounded out the meal. Our Thanksgiving was not traditional, but it was fun. I felt thankful for many things.
Friday night Erik and Marga went out for dinner and dancing with their friends. Betsy and I stayed home with Nora. We decided to keep our dinner preparations simple, and selected a cheese omelet and sausage. The eggs were from the chickens kept by Marga’s father. I had bought the five links of sausage from Bruno earlier that day. Nora pulled a stool over to the counter and helped with the meal preparation, which proved to be more interesting to her than did actually eating the food later. When we were done eating, Nora helped Betsy wash the dishes, and then we sat on the living room floor playing. Nora did not notice when her parents left a little before 9. We played until 10, and then, after numerous trips to the bathroom because she really had to go this time, Nora settled down in her bed and fell asleep. Not once had Nora cried, whined, raised her voice, or told us “No”. We felt pretty good about that. About 45 minutes later, however, she began crying. She had fallen out of her bed (a drop of just a few inches), and needed to be consoled and tucked back in.
Did I mention Nora was independent? The most common phrase I heard this trip was “NO! I want to do it!” This was said anytime you tried to do anything for Nora, such as put on her socks, or put on her shoes, or help her unbutton her coat, or turn the page, or bring up an iPad app, or take a picture, or clean up a crumb, or – well, you get the picture. There proved to be many activities which, with Nora’s help, took more than twice as long to do.
Did I mention Nora did a lot of talking? Some phrases seem to occur over and over again. I suppose we all have our favorites. Mine are “Poppy, I said BE PATIENT!” This was uttered many times, always when her Dad was putting pressure on her to finish up some activity. Best use: when she has been in the bathroom by herself for a while and her Dad asks her if she needs ￼any help. Also, “OK, one more time, and then – no more.” This was said repeatedly whenever it was time to move from one enjoyable activity to the next. As you might imagine, promising “no more” did nothing to decrease the likelihood that she would say it again as soon as the “one more time” had occurred. Vying for most frequent: “Grandma (or Grandpa), what are you doing?” which was consistently followed by “Why?”. Finally, “Yes, or no?” This was always delivered with a one arm and then the other arm hand gesture. Best use: “Which is it Poppy? Yes (left shrug), or no (right shrug)?”
Somewhere along the way Nora picked up my digital camera, and I didn’t tell her to put it down. Instead, I showed her how to take her finger off the lens, how to turn it on and off, where the shutter button was, and how to hold it in front of you so you can use the display to see what your picture will look like. Betsy saw what was happening, and taught her how to put her wrist through the strap “like a bracelet”. Before long, Nora was shooting pictures. Many of the pictures she took were simply no good. An embarrassingly large number of them, actually. But, minute after minute, as she gained first-hand photography experience, her work improved.
I liked her style. She asked no permission, and wasted no time. Quite often she caught people off guard, before they realized there was a camera in the room. When she was detected, her quick responses captured people who, instead of putting on their photography face, were accidentally ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼showing their real authentic smile of delight as they glanced down at this two year-old foolishly brandishing a camera. When I reviewed her pictures, I came to appreciate some of the advantages of shooting from a position only two feet above the floor.
On Saturday, some of Marga’s family – her mother, father, sister, and grandfather – came to visit from Mondragon. Nora is a big favorite with all of them, and they delighted in hugging and kissing her when they arrived. Only Marga’s sister understands and speaks English, so beyond the asking how they are, and the saying that I am fine, I cannot talk to them very much. Nora, however, has no such problem. They spoke rapid Spanish to her, and she to them. It was clear from their laughter that Nora was saying some cute things, and occasionally Erik or Marga would translate for us so we could laugh too. As the group settled into the room for a bit before heading to the street, Nora worked the crowd like a politician, sometimes coming over to the American side of the room and speaking with us, and constantly moving around.
Betsy and I had been looking forward to seeing the gang from Mondragon again. We like them very much. We really appreciate how they have welcomed Erik into their family and learned to love him like we do. We were especially looking forward on this trip to seeing Ramón, Marga’s only living grandfather. At 91, he is the family patriarch. Normally as strong as an ox, he has had health problems recently, and his usual ebullient mood was missing. We were all glad that he had gotten out of the hospital a week earlier, and had felt strong enough to make the trip to Colindres on this day. When we kissed our greeting, I asked him how he was. “Muy mal, muy mal” he said.
Marga’s father, Juan, drove her mother, Marce, and her grandfather to the restaurant that Erik and Marga selected, while the rest of us walked there. When we met them near the restaurant, we walked a short distance to a different bar and had a drink there, and then we went back to the restaurant, where they had prepared a table for the nine of us in the back. Like she is at many of the finer eating and drinking establishments in Colindres, Nora is a favorite of several of the workers there, who greet her by name. Offerings of special treats are common.
I chose to have a large green salad for my first course, although the chorizo and potato soup looked good. The breaded chicken I had for my second course was also excellent, and more than I could finish. I selected flan with chocolate sauce for my third course, as did almost everyone else at the table. Our meal came with coffee, and also with unlimited amounts of fresh bread, red wine, and bottled water.
As we loitered at the table towards the end of our meal, Nora came down and sat on my lap so she could speak with her American relatives. After a bit, she went back to the Spanish side. Her ￼brain switched between languages just as effectively as her lithe little body squeezed between the chairs. As our meal was ending, she asked for my camera and took a few more pictures.
After our meal, Belén drove Ramón and Marce back to Erik and Marga’s apartment while the rest of us walked back. When we reached their home, however, we kept going. Erik went up to get Belén and his camera, and then Juan, Belén, Erik, Betsy, Nora and I went for a long walk. We went down to the waterfront and looked at the boats, then along the waterfront to the very end, and finally back through town and home (again).
About an hour later it was time for the Mondragon contingent to leave. We were all especially careful to say goodbye to Ramón since it was apparent that he was experiencing dangerously low levels of will-to-live.
We knew we had to get up early Sunday morning in order to get to Bilbao in time to catch our 6:50 am flight to Frankfurt, but this was our last night in Colindres, and playing on the floor with Nora was so much fun. Eventually we all got to bed and to sleep, but not before getting one last beautifully warm hug and sweet butterfly kiss from Nora.
We have done this many times, and feel like old pros. I take my Dramamine as soon as I wake up. Betsy and I leave our heavy luggage at the top of the stairs, letting our strong son do the heavy lifting. We wheel our bags into the elevator and down to the street. Erik loads them in the trunk, and drives us expertly through the dark to the Bilbao airport. We quickly hug and say our goodbyes, and Betsy and I head inside. We go immediately to the Lufthansa kiosk and print out our boarding passes. At the counter, we head for the preferred customer line where our bags are checked through to Charlotte. The security gate is never busy at that time of the morning, and we are through in only a minute (belt off, but shoes stay on). We head for the place we can sit down and split a croissant, with a coffee for Betsy and chocolate milk for me. In a few minutes we walk down the ramp to the gate and wait the last few minutes there. The plane boards early, and takes off on time. We leave Bilbao in the dark and an hour later watch the sun rise over France from 40,000 feet.
Everything at the Frankfurt airport goes smoothly and efficiently. When the time comes, we are among the first to board flight 750 to Charlotte, so there is always ample room in the overhead compartment for our carry-on bags. Unfortunately, the sound system in my seat wasn’t working, so I couldn’t listen to the movies that I could view on the screen in front of me. Fortunately, Erik had placed a few movies on my iPad in case of just such as emergency, so I found myself enjoying an even better movie-viewing experience than I would have if my airline seat’s normally sound sound system had been working.
Our normal 15 minute trip through the passport-checking security line in Charlotte took 30 minutes this time, as several international flights had apparently arrived simultaneously. Nevertheless, we got through the airport, found our car in the long term lot #2, and began the hour-long drive home with no wasted time. We had watched the sun rise over France long ago, and as we drove the final miles home, we watched it set over Morganton.