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Published: August 18th 2019
We feel great today - August 8th - Mimma (saved us again) was able to get us an extension on our car for another 7 days. To top it off we were able to drive to the Lille, France train station (car pick up and drop off site) on our way to Antwerp, Belgium and sign up the paperwork.
We have a smooth ride (total about 230 km) into Antwerp today - M indicates that we are 600 m / 1 minute away from our hotel - we are looking forward to a 5 day stay in the city centre at a nice Hilton hotel. We will celebrate our 44th tonight and Danielle’s birthday on the 10th ( not allowed to tell you how old) in this beautiful city - we high five - smoothest travel day yet.
It is at this very moment everything falls apart.
It is gay pride week in Antwerp - the streets are jam packed with people - about 150,000 more than usual.
M tells me to take a “sharp right” in 100 metres and I do - right onto a small one way street jam packed with people, bikes, cafe patio
Stop or you will be shot
tables and chairs. It is clear from the moment I enter this street I should not be here. It is also clear that I can not back up without injuring a lot people.
I immediately go into my panic mode / Danielle immediately goes into her - Keith we will be fine mode.
We inch our way forward. People tuck in their chairs, push their small children, pets and friends aside and clear a very small path for us. I pull in the side mirrors - the crowd opens a few feet ahead of and around us and closes in behind us as soon as we move forward. No one panics (except me). Not one person yelled at us, banged on the car or threw anything at us.
About 500 m / 20 long minutes later we finally emerge from the street - no one hurt....
M tries her best to get us to our destination but all the new street closures and one ways get us lost for another 20 minutes.
We finally see the hotel - M says hard left and I take it - right on to a tramway rail that is
in front of our hotel but closed to vehicles . I inch my way forward and off of the rails very relieved we did not meet one head on in the process.
We circle the Hotel three more times finally seeing an underground Hilton parking lot - we made it.
We check in and are handed a low emission guide pamphlet and instructed that we must register online even though it is obvious our hybrid rental meets the low emission criteria. The fine is 150£ for non compliance. I suggest I will leave the car in the garage the 5 days but am informed that cameras installed around the city centre have already captured an image of our license and if I do not comply the fine will be automatically sent to the car rental company and charged back to me.
As our car is from France we are not already in the Belgian system - It takes me about 4 hours to understand the criteria, register online, upload car ownership and insurance paperwork and am only successful with the help from a very nice woman at an Antwerp Information Centre - a few city blocks away
from our hotel.
Over the next 5 days we only take two side trips.
We visit Dan (friend and fellow pilgrim) and his Mom - Emma at her home in Bilzen which is about 100 km inland from Antwerp. Dan has flown over from Ottawa to visit his Mom for a few months. Dan was originally going to join me on some of the stages of my walk - he spent a great deal of time planning the routes. Unfortunately my change in plans screwed this up - hopefully we get another chance. Emma treats Danielle and I to a delicious home cooked meal - meat loaf, salad, seasoned green beans and roasted potatoes - and for dessert a local home made tart plum pie and coffee (we also had some champagne, cheese, nuts and a little red wine). It was good to see Dan and meet his Mom - an amazing woman.
Our second outing was to Fort Breendonk. This military fortification was used as a Nazi prison camp during WW II for political dissidents, captured resistance members and Jews. Although technically not a concentration camp the Fort was infamous for its poor living conditions and
its use of torture. Of the 3,590 prisoners that entered the camp 185 were executed on site, over 100 died of torture, disease or exposure and another 1,800 died after being transported to concentration camps.
We are provided with a tape recorder that serves as an English guide - activated at each of the about 60 stops around the prison. Danielle and I make the rounds and then - much to Danielle’s dismay to get back we walk the entire perimeter of the prison. We both found the experience haunting.
I know that my Dad entered into one of these prisons or maybe even a concentration camp. I do not know which one - he never talked to us about this. But on one rare occasion when I was much younger I overheard him describing the horrible scene to a someone - what stuck out most was his description of the condition of the prisoners and the fact he / they had to stop the prisoners from getting at their food supplies. At the time I did not understand why.
Just before leaving home I binge watched (thanks J P Z) Band of Brothers - the 10 part Spielberg / Hanks mini series about Easy Company, 506th Regiment of the US Army 101st Airborne Division and their mission from D-Day through V-J Day.
It is an intense, realistic and gritty portrayal based on real events - rightly taking the glamour out of war.
The ninth episode deals with Easy Company stumbling onto one of Dachau Concentration Camp’s - sub-camps - it specifically deals with the food issues and condition of the prisoners. This episode stayed with me as we toured Fort Breendonk.
The good - understanding / forgiving tourists and a kind worker at the Antwerp Information Centre - she did not have to help me. Gay pride week - partying / people enjoying themselves / without fear - too bad Danielle and I were too tired to ever stay up and party.
The bad - government regulations - low emission zones - I get it - but 4 hours ? I will write an email to Europcar Rentals - they should register their own fleet.
The Ugly - again what we do to each other - So easy to blame our failures on and learn to hate people different from us.. Misplaced ideology.
The funny - taking over an hour to travel 600 meters / the hotel mixing up Danielle’s birthday - I got her gift - I was fine with it.
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