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Published: November 9th 2009
1st March '09:
I got drunk last night. Well, not “falling down” drunk - more like four pints, or the equivalent in Euroland measures. Now I could pretend I need ten pints to feel tipsy, but why bother lying? I can’t drink, and that’s the end of it. Namibian’s almost the same, unless whisky is involved. So, more than one beer, and Namibian and I are awake like old men at five in the morning, bemoaning the big night out. I might have to contain drinking, in future, to a small finger of port after lunch - then perhaps allow myself forty winks.
A couple of hours in an Irish bar was more than enough, anyway. American AC/DC crew gazed at the huge screens showing rugby, bemused by the lack of shoulder pads and crash helmets. Namibian patiently explained drop-kicks, and a converted try, to uncomprehending faces - one of which was mine.
Now, talking of being old, the girl at the bar, we decided, was young enough to be my daughter. Just. That’s always been what other drivers say, not me. Where the hell’s my youth gone, then? Bumbling around African deserts and Asian beaches for ten years,
that’s where. Ah well, at least I’ve still got all my own teeth.
Then it was back down my old stomping ground - De Muze Jazz Café, of course, not the brothel. I took “Cookie”, a driver that regards jazz as: 'playing the wrong tune at the same time.' However, any ideas of watching the stage quartet was eschewed, at Cookie’s behest, opting instead for loitering outside the ladies’ toilet two floors up. He grins. 'I like it here, I do.'
Ah, perhaps I'm not an old git after all. In the Young Traveller's Guide to Antwerp, a shop is advertised that appeals to me. “Record collector”, near Antwerp’s cathedral, is a vinyl fan’s dream. There’s a great section in the back of the store for €1 bargains, complete with a turntable for checking scratches. And a nice sign: “BEER. Helps white guys dance since 1842”.
I treat myself to a cheap AC/DC CD to acclimatise myself to the tour - to be played at a moderate volume. If, perchance, you're rolling your eyes in despair, let me tell you this. I recently had a teenager round to my house, oblivious that records have two sides. Now
that's got to be sadder than watching rock concerts with earplugs in, hasn't it? 'Rock n roll ain’t noise pollution, rock n roll ain’t gonna die…'
Why sleep in a truck - or Hotel DAF, as I fondly call her - if I don’t have to? Twenty-seven minutes away by train is Brussels, and my pal, Ive de Sterck. But one has to survive being tossed about on Tram 12 to Central Station first. The driver accelerates hard into the first bend, launching my fistful of change into the stairwell. Still picking up coins, we enter the second curve where my luggage goes over. I’m still trying to pay the fare..
Backing up a few minutes sees an unfavourable exchange with a crotchety chap in Antwerp's tourist office, housed in the main train station. I only wanted to check I’d bought a return ticket: 'No! This is one-way,' he roars, purpling with apoplexy. He frowns at me, veins threatening to burst,and becomes, if anything, more animated. The advice I'm seeking, admittedly, is not really his domain, but he looks more closely at my train ticket. 'And you can come back with it.'
Bruxelles-Nord, the ubiquitous European prostitutes line the last hundred yards of track. I barely notice them cross-legged on stools, wearing only underwear. In dim neon booths, one lady applies yet more make-up while another brushes her hair in a mirror. As I say, I barely notice. I'm here to meet Ive.
Ive, a chap I met in the Algarve eight years ago, is delightful. He has a lovely command of English, and breathes audibly through his nose when uttering witticisms. Last night I asked if we could have an adventure. 'On a Monday?' he replied. 'There’s not much to do in Belgium on a Monday.' And he emitted a little snort.
Today, he checks the “whattodo” website - for the entire country - just in case Belgium has pulled an attraction out of its weekday hat. He draws a blank. It is official, if gobsmacking; there is nothing to do in Belgium on a Monday. Oh, come on! Don't be ridiculous! We eventually decide on the rolling green hills of the Ardennes region. Then he offers me a “handkerchief” for my shower. 'Ah, sorry for my English,' he says, handing me a towel that’s not, in fact, much
larger than a handkerchief. His mother drops by with his laundry.
So we’re off, crawling sedately behind agricultural vehicles on the descent into Dinant. Statues and plaques of saxophones adorn the street where Adolf Sax was born. According to the tourist information girl, however, he only lived here for six months.
We’re in Wallonia now, up to our eyebrows in Walloons. Ive tells me we must stop speaking Flemish (which I wasn’t) and start speaking French (which I don’t). 'Bah oui, saucisson,' I respond stupidly. Yes, you've guessed it: my French stinks. Despite multiple years of schooling, and a B in the final exam, I can still only order sausages. And wine. Oh, and beer, coffee, hotel rooms... Hang on, I can speak French!
As Ive so accurately predicted, not much is open on a Monday. The finest caves in Belgium, along with the Beer Museum and boat trips, are closed. But the Citadel, with its 408 steps, is receiving visitors, so we puff up there and misbehave. Surely vaulting a rail and borrowing a severed plastic head for a photo is not really that naughty?…
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