Perhaps our stomachs were feeling a bit homesick on Wednesday as we looked for a place to grab lunch before heading to the cinema. It was between a Pizza Hut lunch buffet (can't seem to find one near us in Minnesota) and a burger joint.
Despite the brown mustard and white cheese on the burgers (we wanted American cheese, damnit!) it hit the spot. Afterwards we opted for Madagascar 3 in French with no subtitles. Apparently they show movies here in English with subtitles for the first week or so until no one comes to those, then they only show the French versions. It was still funny but we definitely missed a few laughs. Figuring out the movie routine and purchasing the tickets, like every transaction I attempt to make here, was an ordeal. At home when I see someone who doesn't speak English struggling through such things they seem, well, stupid. Now that's me! Every day!
Case in point; our adventure on Thursday began at the train station with grand plans to rendezvous with our friend Frank in Tongeren, the "oldest city in Belgium." Betsy used her limited French to secure our tickets and escort us to the appropriate track at the appropriate time before bidding us farewell and heading to work. We boarded the train and sped off, waving and laughing as our journey got underway.
As Betsy started up the stairs, she saw another train pull in on the same track with its sign flashing TONGEREN. The train we were on had been late, messing up the schedule. Uh oh! She contacted a worker for help, who radioed the crew on our train. The kids and I were taking in the passing countryside when a conductor walked up to tell me to get my shoes off the seat (being comfortable is apparently another nasty American habit) and that I was on the wrong train. I'm not sure how long it would've taken me to figure out that we were speeding toward Luxembourg. A couple of stations later, we were finally on the right train and, about ninety minutes later, we were strolling through Tongeren with Frank.
Tongeren was wonderful. The city was founded in 15 B.C. as a base and supply station for Roman troops in the region. The statue above is of local legend and town symbol Ambiorix, an ancient Gallic chieftain and Hulk Hogan-lookalike who led the fight against Julius Ceasar's invading troops around 52 B.C. before fleeing across the Rhine as the Romans took power.
What is bound to be one of the highlights of our entire trip was our visit to the Gallo-Roman museum located in the heart of the city at the exact spot where a large, luxurious Roman villa once stood. The underground of Tongeren is one large archeological archive dating back 500,000 years and the museum sweeps visitors from Neolithic times through the stone and copper ages and up to Roman life 2,000 years ago.
There were several great activities for the kids, beginning with a pretend archaeological dig site where we learned the proper techniques of unearthing, protecting and cataloging items. They also got to make Neanderthal-style amulet necklaces, paper Ambiorix and Roman soldier figures and replicas of Roman belt clasps.
We also enjoyed making friends with the realistic figures throughout the galleries.
Seeing the Roman artifacts was a dream come true. There were some amazing pieces that brought to life so many details about Roman artistry, technology, innovation and daily life that I'd only previously read about. We walked over an actual mosaic floor that once lay in a covered gallery of a luxury townhouse and saw remnants of a hypocaustum, an underfloor and inner-wall heating system.
Intricate items like hair pins, mirrors, cloak pins, jewelry, toiletry items and these delicate glass vials reveal the artistry and attention to detail of their makers.
The gallery is filled with fascinating items like statue and pillar fragments with images of gods and goddesses, often with inscriptions such as "To Vulcan. The Roman citizens of the centuria of Valentinus of the unit of the Gaesatae placed this stone."
We saw pipes for plumbing and lead bars for their manufacture such as this rare piece with the abbreviated inscription "Property of Emperor Tiberius Caesar Augustus, lead from Germania." Of all the objects ever found in Tongeren, this bar is the only object that is marked with the name of an emperor.
A highlight for Frank was a display of the items found in nearby Heers just a few hundred meters from his childhood home. He was present as archaeologists unearthed items such as a bottle that still contained wine from the treasure-laden burial mounds of wealthy Roman families.
To see all of that in person served to reinforce the mystery of the middle ages, when all of these incredible advancements were swept aside by the conquering invaders at the fall of the Roman Empire. That we can so closely identify with these items and have seen the redevelopment of most of the technology is the theme of the museum, embodied by a quote that appears in a variety of languages in the entryway:
"What follows is always organically related to what went before..."
- Marcus Aurelius, Roman emperor, 121-180 A.D.
The visit was capped off by the one thing I had to see before the end of our European travels; outdoor remnants of a Roman wall. A first wall was built around Tongeren to protect it from the Germanic tribes beyond the Rhine. A second wall was built in the 4th century, parts of which have still survived to this day. This section included the addition of turrets during medieval times for added protection, but the base of the wall and most of the bricks and mortar in it were about 1,700 years old.
We enjoyed giant sundaes on the idyllic town square as church bells rang every fifteen minutes to remind us to soak in the scene and appreciate how fortunate we are to be here.
On the way back to Brussels, we made a stop at Frank's house to meet his parents and his two dogs. The Schoofs tend a beautiful garden and enjoy the protection of Juanita, a behemoth great Dane who was thrilled to see the kids.
As I write this on Friday afternoon, we are about to pack up for a weekend sojourn to Brugge. We're excited to get out of the hustle and bustle of the city and into an air-conditioned hotel with a pool.
We woke up this morning with the one goal of finally getting our laundry clean before moving on to something fun. Unfortunately, the effort to get the wash done monopolized our day, knocking me off my Roman pedestal and back down to the level of befuddled foreigner. When we arrived last week and inquired about the facilities, we were told to look in the unit's parking garage around the corner but found all the doors locked. A few days later we finally got a key (they said they had forgotten they recently installed a lock on the door) and found out that we needed to get some proper change together. So today, with a deadline looming, we all got up early to walk down with Betsy and get the first load in. When the washer swallowed our Euros and failed to start, we removed all the soapy clothes and headed back up to the flat to wait for our contact to advise us. He then informed us that he forgot that the washer was broken and directed me to a laundromat about five blocks away. So the kids and I marched through the streets dragging a suitcase full of dirty clothes only to find a sign in French on the door telling us that the laundromat was closed each year from July 16-28. Lovely. A few texts and a map search revealed another possibility five blocks in the other direction. It was on a street we had started to go down several days earlier but turned around because we didn't feel too safe! Fortunately, it felt safer during daylight and my three patient helpers and I eventually returned "home" with a suitcase full of clean laundry six hours after our initial attempt.