Thursday, October 20, 2011

From Paris to Delft & Concert Day: Sportpaleis, Antwerp, Belgium (October 18-19, 2011)

Being it raining in Paris on Tuesday’s afternoon, I gave up my plans for an afternoon walk and decided to arrive at Paris’ Gare du Nord earlier than later. My train was scheduled to leave at 6:25pm; it’s two metro lines from the hotel, in rush hour, so I figured I’d rather avoid taking risks.

Rush hour in Paris’ metro system can be harsh. The French people—and the same holds for many other European countries—aren’t as protective of their own (and others’) personal space. Torontonians—forget about the crowdedness of your subway lines; Vancouverites—consider the Canada Line and the Sky Train as paradise. In here, people smash into each other in the metro lines, until the doors fail to close, which is when the last one who attempted entry is being ejected while cursing the world.

That explains the slight sense of anxiety I got, when I realized that I’m carrying a big backpack on my back, and a small one on the front. How the heck am I going to get myself onto such a packed train? For the direction I needed, trains arrived at the frequency of once every minute or two, and still there were loads of people on the platform.

Miraculously, as the next train arrived, I found myself standing facing the door of a relatively “spaced out” carriage. Shoved myself in and felt blessed to be alive.

Off the M8, hopped on the M4, two stations to Gare du Nord and left the metro area. Gare du Nord is a big train station, and just as much as it is big, it is busy. It was rush hour, and billions of people seemed to know exactly where they’re headed to—except myself. Trying to follow the signs to the Intercity Trains section, I ended up walking in a loop. I then realized that a sign with an arrow pointing down means “go straight”, and not “go down the stairs”.


Arrived at the train station two minutes before the departure of the 5:25pm train. For a second I thought about boarding it instead of my train (which was scheduled for one hour later), then I decided I’m not in the mood of rushing everything so I stayed for tea in one of the cafe’s around.

People. People. And more people. Everywhere you look, you see people. Then you think your eyes have just discovered a spot without any people in it, so you stare… and then there’s people there too.

So many people. This city is very, very busy.

Twenty minutes to departure, I decided to board the train. That may sound odd to you but this is one of the things you learn once you almost get burnt. Depending on the country you’re in and the train you take, these trains can be long. Very long. The Thalys train (which is a fast train) leaving Paris and terminating in Amsterdam (with stops along the way) is actually composed of two trains chained together; at some stop along the way (I think in Brussels), the two trains become separated and each one goes its own way.

It took me about 4 minutes just to walk to the carriage I was assigned to (typically, fast trains operate on reserved seating basis; you can’t possibly board the train unless you have a seat reserved. Sometimes, the booking of the ticket is a separate transaction than the seat reservation, which tends to be confusing. In short, make sure you know what you’re doing), and it was raining. Arrived soaking wet, and squeezed my ass onto the seat. A particularly lovely lady was seated next to me; of course I took every opportunity I had to make her feel sorry for it. To the front, a mother and a daughter who later on made a few attempts to teach me Dutch, to no avail.

At some point past Brussels, the announcer went on the airwaves and announced that due to a “collision” on the track between Antwerp and Rotterdam, the train will be diverted to Utrecht so may people on board kindly make alternate travel plans. The “collision” ended up being a collision between a huge train to a human who opted at terminating their life.

Apparently, these occurrences are not uncommon in The Netherlands. Apparently it is not that hard, for those who really lost any interest in continuing to live, to cross the fences in various locations along The Netherlands’ vast railway network, and throw themselves onto an approaching train. As sad as such occurrences are, each such unfortunate meeting between flesh, bones & metal ends up in wreaking havoc along public transportation lines.

If you happen to be on the train that hit a person, the train halts and you are not allowed to leave the train until railway clean-up, as well as full investigation, is completed. That can take hours. At the meantime, other trains become diverted to neighbouring stations, and sometimes—that is, if the transport authorities are kind enough—busses are summoned to help.

Anyway, I really didn’t mind the delay too much. I was surrounded by interesting conversation partners so it’d be very hard to bring me to a point of suffering; my only problem was that I was growing very tired as it’s been very tiring couple of days in France.

Eventually, we all arrived at Utrecht each went their own way. My next task was to get to the train that will take me from Utrecht to Den Haag (well, that’s “The Hague” for those of us who care not for Dutch), and then take another train from Den Haag to Delft.

As I arrived at the platform, armed with two backpacks, I had nothing better to do so I commenced with people-watching. That ended up with finding yet another interesting conversation partner for the ride. Turns out to be a PhD for finances, studying in Tilburg and she is absolutely convinced she was able to resolve some complex financial / mathematical / optimization problem I’ve been fighting with, concerning optimal methods for investment portfolio rebalancing with constraints upon selling (if you don’t immediately understand what I’m talking about, don’t try re-reading; it won’t help).

I’ll believe it when I see it.

Anyway, that once again demonstrated to me how dynamic and surprising life can be. Things happen to you when you do this kind of frantic travel: trains collide with people (or other objects), getting delayed; you sometimes lose your way here or there. But sometimes, even when things look bleak, good things can come out of it. Seriously, the best you can do when things seem to be falling apart is just accept it, smile and try to make the best out of the situation. When you’re in a situation when the only way is up—don’t bother looking down. You already know what’s in there: nothing. Look up instead. It’s pretty much the most sensible thing you can do.

Arrived very late at Delft’s train station. For whatever reason—even though I’ve been in this place so many times before—I couldn’t quite recall how to get from the train station to Jeroen’s place, given that it was dark and everything. My stupid BlackBerry’s GPS decided to die on me, so a 5 minutes walk ended up taking 25 minutes to complete, including repeated attempts and pleas on my behalf for the GPS to start working again. It did. I was saved.

I was relieved. No more sleeping in hotels this time around; I’m going to be staying at the same place for a few nights in a row. Good to be on solid ground again.

Jeroen, my good friend from The Netherlands who everyone who’s been reading my blogs is surely aware of his existence, works in a company comprised of people who are much like him: polite, and very smart. Apparently, though, the week before, there was something else that was common to all of those genius folks working together—they were all sick like stray dogs with some sort of a virus. Apparently brains that are smart enough to predict the water levels along The Netherlands’ shoreline weren’t smart enough to conclude that perhaps the best way to cope with illness is simply to stay at home.

(I’m kidding. They’re nice people. I’m sure nothing was done on purpose)

Anyway, I was greeted by an extremely sick Jeroen whose voice suddenly much resembled that of one, Bob Dylan. I think I’m onto something.

The following day was the day of the Antwerp concert. Nothing out of the ordinary. A short lovely lunch in Jeroen’s workplace, where I usually come across interesting things. So you probably all already know that the nice Dutch people are well in the habit of populating bread with strange materials. How about this?


This is a chicken satay spread. Yes. You know that dish you sometimes order in Thai restaurants? Good. Now instead of it being served warm, think of it being served cold; and instead of it being served on rice or noodles, think of it being spread onto a slice of bread.

Does it make any sense to you?

To me it doesn’t. I was astonished. Puzzled, I asked—“what’s next? a fillet mignon spread?”, only to be presented with another spread titled “American Fillet”, which supposedly is exactly what I was “looking for”.


A couple of hours later, we went to the train station to catch the train to Antwerp—some one hour and a half away from Delft, connecting in Rotterdam (which is where all bloody Dutch trains connect).

If you ask a Dutch person “how do we know that we crossed the border from The Netherlands to Belgium?”, the reply will be something along the line of “it’s when things start looking grey, boring, depressing and cold”. Is it? Well, perhaps. I can see how one would reach that conclusion. Not too long after we crossed the virtual border to Belgium, I fell asleep.

When Douglas Adams’ “Life, the Universe and Everything” was being published in the USA, it couldn’t pass censorship due to certain swearwords appearing in the text. There is a short paragraph in the book discussing the “most offensive word in the universe”: the original text had the word “Fuck” there, but in order to pass censorship in the USA, Adams chose to replace it with the word “Belgium”.

This country doesn’t seem to be receiving much credit from the world, lets put it that way.

On February 2011, Belgium broke the world record for a sovereign state not having a functioning elected government—a record that was previously held by Iraq. Something strange is going on in this country.

Arriving at Antwerp’s central station, the first thing you notify about it is that it is big. How big? Really big. It spans four levels—two of them underground—serving local, inter-city and international trains. Train travellers in Europe are very likely to pass through this station when crossing western Europe in any direction.

Just as this train station is big, it is also beautiful. Newsweek has rated this train station to be the “4th greatest train station in the world” back in 2009. Do a “Google Images” search on it; you won’t regret it.

Still, something was missing in this station. It’s called “life”. It was about rush hour, and the station was almost empty of people, which gave it all kind of an eerie look. It was also strange to find out that, during what one would deem to be “rush hour”, there’s no working information booth whatsoever. Signage being confusing at times, we decided to go for a bite before finding out for sure how to get to the venue (we had a general idea).

Stepping into a deli in the train station, I got the very same feeling about Antwerp as I got last time I was here, one year ago. It appears to be… how to call it… lifeless. Perhaps I got this feeling because a day prior I was in one of the world’s most liveliest cities—Paris; but still, I couldn’t avoid that feeling. You get that feeling just looking at people’s faces. There’s a great deal of depression there. Tiredness. Exhaustion. Greyness. People seem to be out of place, quiet, shy. Looking down. As if attempting to not be seen.

Boring, too. Apparently, people in the deli were so bored out of their asses, that when Jeroen asked them what’s the best way to get from the central train station to the venue, it sparked a discussion (between the deli’s workers and a few locals who happened to be dining there) that lasted more than half an hour about the best way to get there. And it’s not like there’s a million of ways to do the trip; as the crow flies, the distance between the station and the venue is 3km. Walking fast, that’s a 40 minutes walk. But still, the very presentation of such troubling puzzle appeared to have injected life into people.

Bah. I missed Paris.

Trying to find our way to the tram (which is also called “metro” there) through confusing signage, we finally made it to the correct platform, only to find that the “subway” (or “tram”) consists basically on one small carriage that, had it not contained people, you’d be 100% convinced that it is used to transport goats from one field to another. More depressing carriages I have only seen in Poland last year, where I had the pleasure of being transported in a metal box that looked more suitable for transporting the manure of horses with balance problems, than humans.

As it was close to show time, it was crowded as hell, too. It’s about 5 minutes tram ride that feel like 50; eventually, we arrived at a station so conveniently named “Sport” and were happy to be ejected of this cattle transporter. The venue, Sportpaleis, was right there.

Last year, the tour made a stop in Antwerp and performed in a venue called “Lotto Arena”. This time, the venue was the Sportpaleis; that explains my astonishment when I existed the train station and found out that, what the heck, that’s exactly where the concert took place last year. Turns out that the Lotto Arena and the Sportpaleis are adjacent to each other. The Sportpaleis is the bigger one.

The venue’s reception area was far from being inviting. First of all it was jam-packed with people smelling of beer, and with beer smelling of people. Toilets on the premises are not free—that’s €0.40 per visit. Well, it is a sports arena after all so expecting much more would probably be a mistake anyway.

Tickets: 5th row all the way to the left. Bummer. Lane & Katrina, my friends from Flagstaff, Arizona were there too after having taken the train from Paris. Now there’s an interesting couple for you, sharing an amazing life story, brilliant people I’m always happy to see. In Paris, Katrina promised to provide me with a tasty gift in Antwerp. She did.

So there’s this guy named Pierre Hermé. I have never heard of him before and therefore should feel ashamed. This guy is a French pastry chef who is extremely famous for his macaroons. According to Wikipedia, the French Vogue magazine described him as the “Picasso of Pastry”. Katrina, then, thought that it would be a great idea to provide me with a sample of this guy’s macaroons—a thought that was very much called for. This sweetheart carried a macaroon for me all the way from Paris.

Right from the first bite, you feel that macaroons should, by law, be standardized for greater size. At least premium macaroons as this one. It was so good. Just so good, feeling as if exactly twelve angels are dancing inside your mouth. I am therefore deeply indebted to this wonderful couple, and will, obviously, pay a visit to this guy’s pastry shop next time I’m in Paris.

The concert started at 8:00pm. As the last train from Antwerp back to Delft was scheduled for 10:00pm, we already knew we’re not going to stay for Bob Dylan’s show.

Well we obviously weren’t in Paris anymore. Even though the performance, by itself, was very good featuring further elaborations of songs all of which have been played before—one thing was sorely missing and it was the audience. I’m not sure how many people were there in the audience during the Antwerp concert—well, it’s a large venue and not many empty seats were left unoccupied—but, audience-wise, it was as if the audience wasn’t there. Again, I might have had that impression because two nights prior I was a part of the best audience so far, in Paris.

The audience in Antwerp seemed to be reserved and not much responding to the great performance they were witnessing. I would attribute this to the general atmosphere you get when you spend time in Belgium… some sort of indifference. It seemed to be very hard to excite these people with anything, at least that’s the impression I got.

Set-list-wise, no surprises there. Privateering was the only unreleased song to be played, Brothers in Arms and Speedway at Nazareth switched places and, as customary these days, So Far Away ended the show. Exciting solos during Hill Farmers Blues—I have to say, way too exciting for the audience that had the privilege to witness them. The only times when the audience seemed to have wielded noises close to being interesting were at the beginning of Brothers in Arms and the end of Speedway at Nazareth. Well thanks Belgium.

As soon as the encore was done, we stormed out of the venue. Nobody wanted to miss the train back to Delft, as it would mean spending a night in this lonely city.

Arriving back to Antwerp Centraal by tram, we had to actually leave the station and re-enter it. Bizarre design, I’d say: from the metro, you’re ejected to the station’s parking lot, then have to find your way (through insane signage) back to the station after practically exiting it. Upon re-entry, I looked around and then I figured something interesting about this place.

The surrounding of Antwerp Centraal, in the dark, is the perfect location for filming a murder scene. There’s everything: extremely high ceilings; dark, grey colours; vast emptiness; buildings and business around the station, looking as if they’re just waiting to be demolished.



So empty.

Brrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr. I was happy to be back in The Netherlands.

Late night sleep after popping some Bob Dylan tunes on Jeroen’s stereo, and off I woke up ready for the last concert (for me) in the tour—this time, close to “home”: Rotterdam, some 15 minutes train ride from Delft.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

q: How can you tell when you've crossed from the Netherlands into Belgium?
a: The cows are prettier than the women.