The scent of manure from the neighboring farm fields was so thick you could taste it as we pulled in to the CenterParcs resort village in De Haan, Belgium on Friday night. Fortunately, the olfactory malefaction passed by midday Saturday and was quickly forgotten as we enjoyed five relaxing days with little planned but exploring the resort and nearby beach on the North Sea, visiting Amsterdam for a day and meeting up with friends one last time.

Our roomy, three-bedroom cabin had a kitchen, two-stories and plenty of room to spread out; a welcome layout for the last accommodations we would call home on our trip. The park had a general store (with a great beer selection) and was packed with activities including an indoor kids' play area, a swim park with a wave pool and waterslides, an indoor sport park where we played a family round of badminton, a bowling alley (didn't), mini-golf (did) and more. Needless to say, along with Disneyland (Day 38) and our afternoon at Stardust park in Brussels (Day 31), DeHaan ranked as one of the kids' favorite destinations.

The town is quiet, picturesque and very European; there are flowers in every window box on the police station and signs exclusively in Dutch in the laundromats. We were pleased to once again find ourselves at a charming refuge favored by locals, even if English is an afterthought in De Haan. The only way I found out that one business was a small grocery/convenience store was by walking up and opening the door. Because their sign wasn't a helpful indicator:

After a breakfast buffet and our first visit to the water slides on Saturday morning, our friends Frank and Carlos made the drive up from Brussels with Frank's mom to explore the area with us.

While we endured some heavy winds and really the first plan-altering precipitation of our entire trip, we still rode a tram to the center of town and the kids hit a trampoline carnival ride before the rains drove us back to the resort. Fortunately our first order of business had been a stroll to the seashore to feel the waves, collect some shells and poke a dead jellyfish with a stick.

After a quiet day around the resort on Sunday, we made our last major sightseeing trip on Monday - Betsy's birthday! - when we got up early to make the three-hour drive to Amsterdam. The Netherlands struck us as being very clean, well-organized and healthy - at least the rest stops, vehicles and roadside fields, buildings and waterways we saw. We arrived in the city shortly before lunchtime and, after hunting down a parking spot, set out on foot to wander along the canals and see what we could find.

Amsterdam, the fourth world capital of our trip, was busy and alive on the crisp, sunny day of our visit. People were milling about everywhere, causing Betsy to wonder, "Don't any of these people have jobs?!"

She left me to ponder that at one of the local coffeehouses while she and the kids took a little walk. It was some of the best coffee I've ever had (not pictured).


The most watery city in the world gets its distinction from three main canals, dug in the 17th century, that form concentric belts through the old downtown, which boasts 1550 monumental buildings. We enjoyed weaving our way along the numerous connecting canals and seeing the houseboats and old crooked warehouses, many of them refurbished as cool living spaces.   

Since we decided to forego the art scene and save the Van Gogh and Rembrandt museums for another time, the one place we really wanted to see was the Anne Frank House. A moderate queue and a look at some information in the museum's shop gave us time for a family history lesson on Anne Frank and WWII.

We saw the warehouse for Mr. Frank's former business and where the family's hideout was built in a secret rear annex. We walked through the offices where the refugees' only support worked by day and where Anne, her sister Margot, mother Edith, father Otto and four others would occasionally sneak by night. We walked past a reconstruction of the bookcase that hid the access panel to the annex and walked up the stairs to the tiny living space shared by eight people from July 6, 1942 until August 4, 1944 when the German police stormed in after an unidentified informer exposed them. It was difficult to place one's self in their shoes; terrified to cough, sneeze, flush a toilet or crack a window shade lest they be discovered and thrown to the Nazi devils; bored, trapped, alone, cramped and fearful for day upon day. While the annex is completely unfurnished, the walls and layout have remain unchanged and walking through Anne's bedroom with the pictures she pasted up on the wall still intact, seeing the map where Otto Frank marked the advancing Allied forces and the section of wallpaper where Anne and Margot's height was marked during their stay was very moving. The original diaries, handwritten in Dutch and spanning several books were also on display.

Anne Frank was important not only because she chronicled a chapter of world history from a viewpoint that usually goes unheard but more so because of the life, love, hopes and dreams for mankind she expressed so beautifully in spite of her dire circumstances.

No photography was allowed inside but here are the kids in front of the exterior of the warehouse right after our visit.

Next we took a relaxing one-hour boat tour through the canals and enjoyed learning about the grand buildings, beguiling houseboats and intricate bridges lining the channels.

Betsy slipped on her fabulous birthday gift, the shimmering Swarovski ring purchased that day from their Amsterdam retail store.

At one point, we consulted our GPS to determine which route we should take next to explore the city and decided on a corner that we hadn't reached previously. Three blocks later, we failed to notice the crimson light bulbs above the windows but we did see the woman in the window who was, as Vaughn put it, "pretending to be a mannequin but with no shirt on." As she pulled the curtain closed with a frown, we made a u-turn and made our way back towards more familiar territory.

Following our day in Amsterdam, two lazy days back at the De Haan resort with nowhere to be and nothing to do closed out our vacation. We bought a shovel for the beach and had a blast digging in the sand and leaping in the waves.

On Wednesday evening we enjoyed a visit from our friends Max, Els and daughters Jill and Anna -Paulina. A pizza feast, lots of laughs, and hopes for many reunions in the future preceded this beautiful sunset on the beach.  

After the two-hour dinner, the kids were eager to stretch their legs as we began to stroll around De Haan. Shortly after leaving the restaurant at dusk, all three kids ran around a corner and were clotheslined by an almost-invisible cable strung up between pillars at the bike-rental store shown in the second picture of this post. Xander took the worst of it on his neck and the height of the wire was evident as Vaughn got it on the nose and Quinn on her right eyebrow. 

We went to the floral police station and made a report so I'm sure the bike store got a stern reprimand in the morning. Of course, it took an some Americans sprinting blindly around a dark corner in an unfamiliar town to point out the problem, but we did our civic duty and - finally! - a Belgian cop wrote my information down in his little book. 

Thursday morning started early as we made our way to the airport first thing in the morning. One of our strategies was to put a packed suitcase inside an otherwise empty larger suitcase to make our return trip a little easier. It was a great idea that made packing easy but cramming everything into our little Skoda Octavia a lot like playing Tetris. Here's us pulling everything out upon arrival at the Brussels airport for our flight back home. Vaughn has the print we bought during our visit to Monet's house and gardens.

This is the last installment of the Hughes on the Loose: Europe 2012 blog after 27 posts covering 44 days. We've had over 1900 page views and we're delighted our friends and family could share the true joys of Europe right along with us:

Our trip ended with our return to the Twin Cities on August 30. We will have to find a local resource for some of the thirty new varieties of beer we've sampled during our travels (several of them way more than once). The true highlights were our stays in London (during the Olympics!) and Paris, living in Brussels, the day trips to Amsterdam, Dinant and Monschau, seeing all the castles, walls, cathedrals, palaces and boobs, just being together and the countless little joys and discoveries that happened every day. 

goodbye laundromats, 
hello dishwasher

goodbye museums, 
hello classrooms

goodbye pigeons, 
hello piano

goodbye great beer everywhere, 
hello all English all the time

goodbye Bob l'eponge,
hello NFL

goodbye subways, 
hello Hopkins

goodbye cigarette butts, 
hello water fountains and trash cans

goodbye suitcases, 
hello baseball gloves

goodbye new friends, 
hello home

 Ha ha ha ha ha! Weiner Circus!


Thursday and Friday were both quiet days as the kids and I spent most of both mornings getting back to work. I had some serious blogging to do to get caught up on our time in London and the youngsters were all eager to dive back into their arithmetic and reading. Well, they may not have been given much of a choice but they were rewarded with a trip to Stardust, Brussels' largest indoor play park on Thursday afternoon.

Since Belgian schoolchildren are still on summer holiday, we found the place wide open like many local attractions we've visited. We arrived just after four p.m. and shared the facility with maybe fifteen other kids for the two hours we were there. X, V and Q rode bumper cars, race cars and motorcycles, enjoyed climbing, sliding and bouncing on all kinds of activity areas and became expert bumper boaters with all the time they spent bouncing into each other on the water.

Friday afternoon's reward was a trip to the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences a half hour's walk from the flat. On our way we stopped by a beer shop that boasted 400 different varieties. I swear a place like this would make a killing in America. If anyone wants to go in on a business with me, I promise to personally sample every one of our products to best advise our potential customers.

We weren't sure what to expect at the museum, but its collection of specimens of virtually every animal species on land, sea and air was vast and the dinosaur hall is the largest in the world completely devoted to dinosaurs. The museum, founded in 1846, gained international attention when it became home to thirty fossilized Iguanodon skeletons, which were discovered in 1878 in a coal mine in Bernissart, Belgium.

Another highlight for us was the ensemble of stuffed and mounted animals both living and extinct that filled hall after non-air-conditioned hall. The boys can't get enough of the big cats and Vaughn in particular loves the spotted ones.

The fish exhibits reinforced the kids' growing demand for an aquarium upon our return home; they want a clown fish named Nemo and a goldfish named Goldie. Pretty creative. There was a North and South Pole room with great examples of the different animals found at both, including a narwhal, and a whale room that included an enormous skeleton of a young blue whale.

The insect gallery was stunning in its abundance with fifteen million (!) individual specimens of insects, spiders, crustaceans and other arthropods. That wing of the museum culminated in a vivarium with several tanks of live creepy crawlies. 

On the way home we were quite hungry but decided to hold off until we found something a little more familiar than the options offered by one African eatery just off the main strip.

That evening, after catching up with Granny and Grandpa Hughes on Skype, we celebrated the beginning of Betsy's longest vacation in five years with a walk to Grand Place for another look at the Flower Carpet. We were glad we saw it in its full glory on Tuesday as it had lost much of its freshness and fragrance but it was still exciting to take in the scene. We also made sure to hit a waffle spot for a snack as we lingered at the beautiful landmark for probably the last time.


We reached London on Friday evening after our first high-speed train ride. We crossed from Calais, France to Great Britain via the Chunnel and the most exciting thing I can say about that is that it was dark. 

The "jolly good" greeting we got as we made our way through immigration told us immediately that we were in a much friendlier atmosphere than the one we left behind. The hosts were enthusiastically "brilliant" in every sense of the word throughout our entire visit to London. 

By the time we completed our first successful navigation of The Underground and struggled our way through a few bouncing-ball-GPS false starts with suitcases and backpacks in tow to finally arrive at our hotel, it was too late to hit a pub. However, we did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night and the front desk was well equipped.

The next morning, we hit the first of our four hotel breakfasts and found out why beans and toast - with a dash of Worschetershire sauce - are a staple of the English diet. It's yummy and they definitely give you a burst of energy (and a multitude of smaller bursts throughout the late morning and early afternoon). 

We set out for a stroll west along the south bank of the Thames on the Queen's Walk with an eye toward getting on the London Eye, the European landmark that Quinn was most excited to visit as we planned our trip months ago. 

On the way to the Eye we were pleased to find that London was pulling its international weight when it came to statuesque statuary.

The giant (and thankfully enclosed) Ferris wheel also didn't disappoint, offering a spectacular view of the city and giving us a birds-eye view of many of the landmarks on our must-see list.

We walked by Westminster Abbey and the Bell Tower (look, kids, Big Ben!) but we opted to keep moving as the lines were pretty long and we wanted to head toward the Olympic-sounding cheers we could hear emanating from Hyde Park. One of the many eager, smiling and helpful volunteers directed us toward the fountain at Buckingham Palace where were were able to experience the thrill of our first live, in-person Olympic event…the men's 50 K race walking event. Man it was some intense walking.

We watched for about five minutes before hoofing it - faster, I think, than a few of the athletes we had just witnessed thanks to some full bladders - to a Westminster Arms, a classic English pub where we shared fish and chips and a steak and ale pie along with a couple of pints for the adults.

We went Underground with growing confidence to ride the rails to Potters Fields in the shadow of the Tower Bridge where a large screen was set up for Olympic viewing.

After enjoying ice cream and some Olympic coverage with a great view of the Tower of London across the Thames, we wanted an ever better look so we made our way across the bridge on foot.

We got great exterior views of the castle walls including a glimpse at the remnants of an 11th century gate before making our way around to today's outer gate called the Middle Tower, the looming presence of which was once made all the more intimidating by the sound of lions from the royal menagerie growling from the interior. 

But more on the Tower later. After a break at the hotel we went to Piccadilly Circus, the Times Square of London, where we emerged from the Underground just as the starter's pistol fired to begin the women's 4x400 relay. Team USA's gold-medal performance was our first chance to whip out our Stars and Stripes and whoop it up with some of our fellow countrymen.

We then enjoyed a deliciously spicy Indian meal before turning a corner and finding ourselves in the middle of Chinatown. We explored the streets for awhile and forced our kids to communicate with some shop owners for our pleasure before heading toward Trafalgar Square where we came upon the drunken revelry of the fans of Team Mexico celebrating their gold-medal soccer victory over Brazil. We had one final cool sight on the way home for the evening as we strolled past a swank balcony party being held at the Russian team's headquarters.

Traveling like this in such close quarters can either make a family stronger or make each member want to sit in a dark closet by him- or herself.  It seems to be having a pretty good effect on the kids. Either that or they're banding together in unity to withstand the constant sightseeing onslaught.

If you need me, check the closet.


*Sigh* Another day, another round of museums, another delicious meal, another new beer.

Now at the halfway point of our European epic, we have settled into the advantageous routine of relaxed travel. The freedom we've had to leisurely enjoy Brussels and the surrounding towns instead of frantically barnstorming from sight to sight has made us realize that this, whenever possible, is the way to do it.

On Wednesday afternoon, the kids and I set off on foot to visit the Belgian Centre of Comic Strip Art and to see what we could see along the way. Just around the corner from La Cathedrale des Saints Michel-et-Gudule, we noticed signs for the gratis Museum of the National Bank of Belgium. Since the price was right, we went in!

Housed in the former headquarters of the bank, the museum walks visitors through the history of banking and money in Europe as well as a chronicle of the National Bank itself. We got to see the office of the governor of the bank, which had been left unchanged since the bank moved to its current location. Very fancy.

The most interesting exhibits for us included ancient coins and other items used as money over the centuries, examples of every different European currency replaced by the Euro and a hands-on display of the effects of inflation over the decades since 1860 on coal, meat, bread, butter, cheese and - of course - beer.

Bank documents from the rich and famous were also on display, including these papers ascribed to shareholder Victor Hugo, writer of Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. The signed, handwritten note on the left is dated 1881. 

Next stop was the comic strip museum. Situated in the beautiful Art Nouveau setting of a Waucquez Warehouse once occupied by cloth wholesalers, the building was renovated in the late 1980's with several areas made in the fashion of notable interiors direct from the pages of the nation's most beloved comics. 

Needless to say, we made a beeline for the Tintin area where we enjoyed character charts, props from the stories, a display of Tintin collectibles through the years and biographical information on Georges Remi (switch the initials around and you get the authors pseudonym, Hergé - below, right). 

The museum also presents a history of the development of comics and a variety of other prominent authors and their characters. We were so motivated by our visit that we stopped by the Comics Cafe we visited on Day 3 to peruse their collection of books and enjoy the open selection of colored pencils and papers. Vaughn was so inspired that he ended up completing by the following morning a full comic book titled Alex's Advéntures.

As we walked back to the flat, we passed through the historic indoor shopping arcade called the Koninginnegalerij. Packed with opulent shops including a boutique entirely devoted to champagne and a purse store with one displayed in the window next to a 3,800€ price tag ($4,688!), the covered shopping street is thought to be the oldest in Europe (1847). I gave into temptation and purchased my first Belgian candy from somewhere besides a grocery store (all of which offer a vast array of excellent sweets) and we left with a box of sumptuous chocolate liqueurs. 

In the evening, we all went out to dinner with our friends, Carlos and Frank. We randomly picked an outdoor eatery by the bowling alley we intended to visit afterwards and enjoyed what will probably be our last extravagant meal out in Brussels. 

So I made sure it counted and satisfied my desire to enjoy a couple of national dishes with a big bowl of steamed mussels and an order of steak tartare, which is pretty much just a pile of finely chopped raw beef.

It was something I've always wanted to try and it made for a memorable meal. Both of the boys sampled a bite and I think they enjoyed it, but they tell me they wouldn't rush to find it again any time soon. The dinner was one of the best we've had, topping the the roasted quail stuffed with morel and sweetbreads I enjoyed two days prior. And now, I promise, no more foodie talk...for at least a few entries.

Finally I leave you to bask in our immature delight at some of the local art we passed during the day's wanderings. I'm not sure whether the guys below are wrestling or embracing, but at least they're naked. I also have no information on why the Weeble Wobble has her boobs out but she's clearly a hottie!


Usually when I sit down to make a blog entry I set the kids to work on their worksheets until they finish and move on to watch some Olympics or an episode of their favorite, Bob l'eponge, on TV. Some of the entries have taken me over three hours to complete so the process is made even more enjoyable by sipping on one of the twenty+ varieties of beer I've had the opportunity to sample during our stay. At this pace, I may get through almost fifty different brews before we return and I must say I'm getting pretty spoiled.

On Tuesday, we got out of the flat to visit an indoor pool at the Complexe Sportif Poseidon. Now true Metro experts, we wasted no time in claiming a pole and riding the rails to the Tomberg area with our swim gear loaded into the backpack.

After struggling through the payment and entry procedure during which I was unable to get an answer as to what else was available at the complexe (it turned out to have an ice skating area, a climbing wall, some workout rooms, a gym and a martial arts center), I began to notice some signs informing me that swim caps were not optional we returned to the desk to purchase four of them. Once we muddled our way through the changing area, not quite sure we were ever following the right procedures in the in the right places, we crammed the latex caps onto our heads. 

When we were finally ready to enter the pool area, a lifeguard approached to inform us in French that we weren't wearing proper swimsuits. Barely containing my frustration, we returned to the desk a third time to rent some of the tight lycra swimmers you see above that we were required to wear before getting wet. Yes, I wore the same get up (not pictured). Finally, we entered the actual pool area and begin to frolic until Xander's rapidly swelling eyes reminded us of his latex allergy. With all the commotion, I had failed to take that into account and he was in a lot of discomfort. Fortunately our fourth trip to the admissions desk netted us our fifth swim cap - this one made of polyester - and once Xander got scrubbed down, we were set free. So two hours of swimming, including the subway ride, set us back 30.30 Euros, or about $37.50. There was no chance we were going to explore the rest of the complexe and I was really glad I chose to pack a lunch instead of planning on eating in the cafeteria! In the end, we had a blast and the kids particularly enjoyed pretending they were Olympians, going through all the motions from pre-race introductions to receiving their imaginary medals and bouquets on the podium.

That evening, one of my biggest goals of our visit to Belgium was met as my friend Warren and I practiced with a local baseball club.

The first time Betsy suggested accompanying her for the summer, I immediately searched "baseball in Brussels" and came upon a site for the Kangaroos baseball club. I contacted the group once it became clear we would be making the trip and was disappointed to realize that the 150 Euro "players' license" combined with the fact that we planned so many weekend trips out of the city would preclude me from participating in actual games but was delighted to get an invitation to join them for practice anytime I was able. 

The team plays and practices on a multi-use Sportsturf field that has a decent mound, two dugouts and a storage unit for all of their equipment (they also actually get TWO umpires for their games!). This video provides a flatteringly-edited look at the team and includes a great shot of a Frank Drebin-wannabe behind the plate at 1:10. A few guys from the video were at practice but by and large it was a mix of nationalities and abilities; sport-loving recreational athletes several of whom are still learning the techniques of the game. Unlike when the TCMABL Twins practice, the man in charge ordered two laps around the field to get things going and everyone actually started running. Then we circled up for a lengthy round of calisthenics.

Finally the real action got underway and we ran through a pretty standard infield/outfield followed up by the usual batting practice.  I got some time in center but primarily manned second base despite my lack of a cup, confident that the turf field would provide true enough hops to prevent a repeat of my experience on one of the dirt infields in Minnesota shortly before my departure. "The boys" and I weren't let down and it was great turning two with the slick Japanese shortstop (all white below), definitely the best fielder on the team. There was also a hispanic guy who was pretty sharp (Yankees cap), a professional paintballer built like a tight end who literally just started playing baseball (Nebraska shirt) and the Belgian coach (standing, left) who knew what was up but otherwise it was mostly Bad News Bears.

We finished by doing some base running drills as I worked through mechanics with a couple of aspiring pitchers. It was a great experience and so fun to hear their Franco-Amercan chatter. I heard "I've got eet!" "You need to catch zis ball!" several "Atta boys" and some choice curses that I wish I could remember. For my TCMABL friends; overall the nine guys who stuck it out on Tuesday might be able to give the Entourage a run for their money but it would be close. Only one guy was struck in the head and had to leave to attend to his bloody lip and chipped tooth. Regardless it was great fun and I'm eager to get out again on Thursday night for another go at it.

Finally today we're counting down the days to our Friday train trip to London. We've been checking online daily for an opportunity to pick up some tickets but it's looking like that pretty much won't happen. A breakdown of some of the possibilities:
  • $481 minimum for a single ticket to the men's basketball bronze medal game.
  • $608 minimum for a single ticket to the men's boxing finals.
  • $1,389 per ticket for track and field events on Saturday including finals for the men's 4x400 and 4x100 relays, pole vault, javelin as well as finals for women's high jump, hammer throw, 800m and 4x400 relay.
  • $2,797 per ticket for the closing ceremony which would run $13,985 for the entire family to attend.
Jeez, how about faster, higher, stronger, cheaper?! Unless someone wants to organize some sort of fundraiser on our behalf, here's a preview of us watching the Olympics while we're in London:

Actually we know that we'll be able to explore the public areas and we do have plans on at least getting along the course of the men's marathon so we're sure to have a great time. We're looking into attending a theatrical performance and we have a couple of extra days after the closing ceremonies to hit all the major sights and take in a couple of museums as well. 

Until next time!


On Thursday morning, we used the now-functioning washing machine in our parking garage to get through a couple of loads of laundry before finally exploring the Porte de Hal, a fortified gate just down the street from us that was built in 1381 as part of the the second city wall that once protected Brussels. The wall and the six other gates have long since disappeared, but this one survived through the years as a prison, customs house, granary, church and now a museum. The view on the left is the outside that once included a portcullis and drawbridge over a moat while the image on the right shows the city side. 

Around 1870, the inner tower and many embellishments were added including a vertigo-inducing spiral staircase surrounding by statuettes of knights and other medieval figures. Here's a view looking up from floor to ceiling, which I preferred over leaning out to get the opposing view.

The galleries included several suits of armor and a lot of weaponry including hand cannons, pikes, axes and crossbows as well as prison items such as the restraining devices and branding iron shown here.

We even got to try on some of the armor and practice doing battle with our souvenir swords. Here Xander illustrates the advantage of being right-handed on a spiral staircase designed to benefit the defending troops.

It was fascinating to see in person the clever ways the fortress was designed to help the people of Brussels defend themselves against external attacks in the Middle Ages. We enjoyed imagining fighting off invading troops by dropping stones and pouring boiling oil on their heads from the hatches built into the floors and towers.

The kids were much more willing than I to lean out for the archers' views of the city streets and they were very accommodating as I hugged the walls to traverse the walkways a dizzying five stories above the pavement below. 

Oddly, one floor was filled with an intriguing exhibit of wire-framed paper sculptures that, delightfully, included the figure below as well as a large, phallic dirigible hanging from the rafters.

So an Australian, a Belgian, a Colombian and an American walk into a bar. The American says, "Let's order one of those beer towers!" Then, uh, well, that's all I can remember...

I enjoyed a fun guys' night out with friends Warren, Frank and Carlos on Thursday evening. We enjoyed some good food and drinks and a lot of laughs on the patio of an Irish bar overlooking the Brussels Stock Exchange building before grabbing some late-night fries on the way back home. My hosts made sure we stopped by the Jannekin Pis statue, a 1980's work of art (?) that serves as a sister to the famous Mannekin Pis. Here's a G-rated shot, courtesy of a well-positioned protective bar. 


On Friday, confident we had truly conquered the mysteries of the Metro, the kids and I boarded a subway train to head west to visit a centuries-old Gothic house known as the Erasmus House. While we successfully navigated a line switch and ended up at the end of the track in Erasmus, I had neglected to confirm that the Erasmus house was actually in Erasmus. So after a brief, fruitless expedition through the town, I finally turned on my iPhone roaming feature to di$cover that we should have gotten off six stops earlier in Anderlecht. Fortunately, our brief visit wasn't a total loss as we got to see this mural on a bridge wall near the Metro stop. 

Upon arriving in Anderlecht, we raced through the streets to reach the museum before closing and were pleased to find that we had almost two hours to enjoy both the Erasmus House and the nearby Beguinage for one admission. A Beguinage is a small home constructed between 1252 and the 17th century for widows of crusaders and Catholic lay sisters known as Beguines. The house we saw dated from 1603 and included a variety of objects of archaeological and religious interest and local history artifacts documenting a thousand years of Anderlecht's past.

One object of special interest was this cabinet which holds a series of cut-out prints on horizontal slots to provide a three-dimensional image when viewed through a lens and mirror on the opposite side. While this offers a visitor of today little more than a moment's whimsy, it is easy to imagine the hours of entertainment this doubtlessly extravagant item of the time would have provided.

Next up was the Erasmus House, so called because of the brief period the classical scholar and humanist reformer Desiderious Erasmus Roterodamus (1466-1536) lived there.

As early as the 17th century people were making pilgrimages to the grounds which today shelter a museum, a study center with early manuscripts of Erasmus' works and a historical garden. The house has been restored to look the way it did in 1521, the year the Renaissance philosopher arrived, complete with creaky, uneven wooden floors and touches such as a servant's peephole and an outdoor fountain for carriage horses. 

A variety of artifacts are presented in the setting of ornate furniture and artworks. In addition to the paintings and sketches that tell the story of the man and his life, we enjoyed looking at shelf after shelf of ancient books, some displayed open with hand-written marginalia.

The garden behind the house was designed in the late 1980's around existing structures to provide a botanical history of the time. The beautifully manicured grounds include about a hundred medicinal plants that were commonly used in the 16th century as well as a series of cartographic flowerbeds designed to illustrate Erasmus' journeys and a philosophical area supposedly conducive to reflecting on the human condition. The kids found it more conducive to playing tag.


I won't be forgiven if I fail to mention the lady who tried to cram herself into the closing doors of the subway on the way home. She ignored the many signs warning one not to do so and as the alarm sounded and the doors squeezed together she was stuck half in and half out. Without a word from anybody involved, two other passengers gave a half-hearted effort to prop the doors open. I was about to shove her out for her own safety since she was neither trying to extricate herself or slip through; she just kind of stood there looking around. Finally the mechanism forced the doors shut and she was ejected back onto the platform...but the sleeve of sweater that was tied around her waist was stuck in the door! I thought we were going to witness a death but we were all relieved to see the garment come loose as the train sped away with her sweater flapping in the breeze. It was surreal as no one else seemed to think it was much of a big deal but it served as a memorable safety reminder for the kids.

To end on a happy (and somewhat neurotic) note, we love the un-canned vegetables here that come in jars! We avoid canned food at home because BPA and phthalates from the plastic lining inside the cans can leach hormone-disrupting chemicals into the food. I hope that American suppliers make the switch soon.

We head off for a couple of day trips this weekend with Monschau, Germany on Saturday and Luxembourg City on Sunday. Read all about it right here!


On Friday evening, we made the one-hour drive northwest to picturesque Brugge, the Venice of the North. Alternately spelled Bruges, the city is filled with well-preserved architectural and artistic treasures as well as a lovely Crown Plaza hotel that served as our base of operations for the weekend. We were right around the corner from the town square which resembled Grand Place in Brussels with its wide plaza ringed by ornate, gilded buildings.   

We set out to explore right away and were drawn to the fragrant scent of chocolate wafting out of the magnificent sweet shops. We managed to resist since a nice box of chocolates had greeted us in our hotel room thanks to Betsy's frequent-guest status. The city also has a tradition of lacemaking and there were several stores selling fine examples of the delicate material.

We wanted to get back to our room fairly quickly, however, so we could enjoy a live airing of the opening ceremonies of the Olympics. While we are unable to see any event video from the US telecasts on TV or online, it has been interesting to watch the BBC coverage as well as the Belgian TV broadcasts. We do miss Bob Costas and getting to closely follow all of the American stories but I expect our visit to London in less than two weeks will take a little of the sting away.

The timing of our travels continues to be impeccable as we escaped a major rain in Brussels and found ourselves in the middle of a music festival weekend. There were concerts in another square right on the doorstep of our hotel all weekend long including this one in Saturday night featuring Lady Linn, a popular singer/songwriter who's all the rage in Europe.

After a dip in the hotel pool on Saturday morning, we enjoyed a half-hour boat tour through the canals of the city that took us by many of the main sights. In the first picture you can see one of the boats that are constantly cruising up and down the waterways as the guides describe each of the landmarks in Dutch, French and then English. Later, as we strolled through the city wandering through narrow cobbled passageways and historic buildings at every turn, we naturally began to build up a thirst. We decided to learn more about the unending variety of available beers by taking in a brewery tour at the De Halve Maan (Half Moon) family brewery.

The brewery, still active today, has been producing beer since 1856. We were introduced to the interesting world of malt and hops and enjoyed hearing a lot of fun anecdotes about the history of the building and its machinery. 

These giant tanks once held the beer as it seasoned and had to be thoroughly cleaned between each filling. It was a dangerous job because of the alcohol vapors and lack of oxygen making its way through the tiny door. Two workers always had to be present; one would stand guard outside to ensure the safety of the man inside who would whistle or sing as he scrubbed. When the whistling stopped or the singing became garbled it was time to get out!

The tour also included a stop on the roof of the building which offered a panoramic view of the entire city. The boys made sure to announce to everyone present that I was scared of heights so I had to climb up and down the see-through stairs while everyone watched to see if I would lose it. Fortunately we all made it up and down just fine.

The tour concluded with a refreshing glass of Zot Blond for the adults and a hot chocolate for the kids, all included with our admission.

We have learned already to find eateries just off the main tourist areas in towns like these. While you may sacrifice a bit of ambience, the tens of Euros saved are worth it. In addition, most of the restaurants surrounding the town squares all offer a similar menu of local dishes. We were delighted to find two memorably different and inexpensive meals in a little Italian place down a one-way street and a delicious pitalier a block off the main plaza during our visit to Brugge.

There are also numerous food carts but I usually take one look at the menu and decide it's time to move on. How can one ever choose between a bitterballen, some kippenvleugels or a garnalenkroket?!

Fortunately, our dining options for dinner on Sunday upon our return to Brussels were settled days ago. One of Betsy's friends from work, Rebecca Sheridan, and her husband Simon hosted a lovely garden party with an international array of friends and neighbors. It was fun to talk to a lot of interesting people and the food, capped off by a tableful of wonderful homemade desserts was excellent.

Finally, the kids picked out their Belgian souvenirs in Brugge and made some very fine choices. The boys opted for a couple of matching shields and swords, complete with leather scabbards, while Quinn couldn't resist this sweet little Snowy doll.

We're having a quiet Monday in the flat today enjoying the Olympics but will hit the town again tomorrow when all of the museums open for the week. See you next time! 


Saturday was an intense day of country-wide sightseeing with a pair of excellent hosts, Betsy's Colombian co-worker Carlos (left) and his partner, Frank, a Belgian native. Both were eager guides with a lot of fascinating information and the day of adventure and conversation was even more special as it was National Day, the annual Belgian holiday much like our Fourth of July.  

The first stop was at the "symbol of Brussels," the Atomium - a monument originally built for the 1958 Exposition. It's a 335-foot tall structure made up of nine steel spheres connected to form the shape of an iron crystal magnified 165 billion times. We'll be back another day to visit the interiors of some of the spheres, which contain museums and a restaurant, but today we merely visited for a quick photo opportunity. Oddly, our quick stop was hijacked by a busload of Chinese tourists who insisted on having their pictures taken with our "beautiful babies." I freaked them out by speaking a little Chinese but then they freaked me out by handing me camera after camera as they cycled through, stepping up in small groups to pose with the little blonde Americans at the Belgian monument. Once we got rid of them, we finally had the opportunity to take a picture of our own.

We then began a weekend trend of getting off the usual tourist path with a visit to the city of Hasselt where we enjoyed a magnificent brunch at The Palace, a stunning restaurant in a building that used to house a branch of the national bank.

We enjoyed a luxurious meal in an opulent dining room filled with Moroccan chandeliers and gilded everything.

One of the vaults is now used as an extravagant cigar bar. The thick steel doors open to a room of indulgence, still surrounded by the original safety-deposit boxes, complete with keys sitting in many of the locks. Most are open but dozens remain sealed as the four-dial, A-Z combinations have been lost to history. Who knows what treasures are sealed within the locked boxes?!

A stroll through the ancient city gave us our first glimpse of some of the National Day festivities as this group of uniformed fellows strolled by the charming town square.

Our next stop was an interactive history park in Bokrijk, an open-air museum consisting of old Flemish buildings that make up a complete village from around 1850. Historical interpreters throughout the grounds recreate conditions of the time. The farmhouse below left with wattle and daub walls housed the animals on the ground floor while the upper levels were occupied by the family and their food stores. The walls are made of timber framing with thin sticks running from beam to beam and the spaces are filled in with mud mixed with straw. The centuries-old building in the background of the photo above was made the same way and it's still in great shape. This constable was very funny. He pedaled throughout the town admonishing people and made Carlos get his hands out of his pockets, an activity apparently frowned upon on this establishment. 

On Saturdays, the bakehouse produces several pies and loaves of bread which we had the opportunity to see in production but did not have the opportunity to sample.

A shepherd made his way into a nearby field with his crook and his faithful dog and we got right up close as the herd made its way toward us. It was cool to see a real sheepdog doing its thing in person and it was surprising how loud the chewing and grass-ripping of a herd of approaching ruminants can be.

We had a good seat in the church for the priest's sermon, during which (I think) we were all told what idle and immoral sinners we are.

We stopped in the town of Liege on the river Muese to see one of the oldest cathedrals in Europe but it was closed for the day so we sat at a cafe and had some beer instead. Then we made our way back to Brussels to catch up with the festivities of the big day. As we strolled toward the center of town we were swarmed by revelers and displays of both past and current Belgian military might.

A highlight was witnessing a group of revolutionary-era re-enactment soldiers firing their muskets on the Rue de la Regence.

As we made our way to our restaurant we passed tanks, a fighter jet parked on the street, every police vehicle imaginable and scores of proud soldiers of today's Belgian army.

At Chez Leon, we opted for as many authentic Belgian dishes as we could including mussels, meatballs in tomato sauce, fries, croquettes and our first foray into escargot. The snails were swimming in a lovely garlic butter sauce and Vaughn and I particularly enjoyed them. Betsy was bold enough to get one down but Quinn and Xander respectfully declined. Vaughn also loved the mussels and is eager for his next serving.

The fireworks bursting over the rooftops of the city followed by a street-side rendezvous with several of Betsy's friends from work capped a truly memorable day. We then went home and crashed until noon the next day. With the fading jet lag and the non-stop excitement of the day, Xander said later that Saturday night was the most tired he's ever been. 


With no plans today save for finding that first good glass of Belgian beer, the kids and I hit the town once again as Betsy drove to the office for another day of international success. We had noticed a skate park during our day-one stroll and decided to pack up the scooters and see if we could find it again. Xander, Vaughn and Quinn really enjoyed zipping around when I wasn't borrowing one of their scooters.

The skate park was right in the shadow of the Eglise Notre-Dame de la Chapelle, a church that has a posted roster of pastors dating back to 1278. 

Once again the paintings, sculptures and woodwork throughout the interior brought a quiet reverence to all three kids during our lengthy visit. The artwork, while often morbid and depressing, is nonetheless inspiring with its antiquity and stunning detail. This is a marble skeleton greeting visitors near the front of the sanctuary.    

After lunch at the flat, we ventured out with little in mind other than to check out a nearby Metro stop for next week's more distant explorations as well as a park and some sort of large castle-like structure we could see on a city map. The park turned out to be extremely cool, with a maze of little wooden shacks, ladders slides, climbing ropes and swings.

One of the shacks was labeled "Ale House" with a foaming beer mug sign over it and, unlike America's ridiculously safe playgrounds, this area was a lawsuit waiting to happen. We loved it and I'm sure we'll make it a frequent stop.

The park led to the Porte de Hal, a 14th century city gate from the second set of defensive walls that once enclosed Brussels. Most of the other gates were demolished but this one survived since it was used as a prison, customs house, grain silo and church over the years before it went through numerous renovations to become the historical site and museum it is today. At the bottom of the picture you can see the original 600-year old structures that housed a portcullis and drawbridge over a moat. We rolled up right at closing so will be back soon to visit the exhibitions inside.

The lights and sound of a local street carnival then attracted our attention. We rode the giant slide a couple of times and made our way down the strip to soak it in.

We got our first order of Belgian fries and dove in.

It was just like being on the midway at an American state fair but there was no spandex, everyone was smoking, several stands were selling escargot (didn't try it yet), the carnival game prizes included very realistic toy knives and guns and - finally! - there were boobs.

Once the hardworking breadwinner of the family returned to the flat and had a chance to unwind, we set out on foot to find a place to eat. We had heard about a nearby restaurant in Sablon that was full of Tintin stuff and we were delighted to come across it. The Comics Cafe was filled with tons of really cool artwork with an emphasis on the great Hergé. There were framed original Tintin sketches and way too many things that I want to go back and buy. But tonight was about enjoying our first real Belgian meal and it couldn't have been much better. Betsy and I shared a couple of Karmeliet beers and we dove in family-style to orders of beer-braised beef with fries, tandoori scallops and filet of sea bass. It was a very memorable meal and the upstairs reading and drawing area is a place the kids and I will quickly get back to.

A couple of notes after a few days:

I haven't inhaled as much second-hand tobacco smoke in the last five years in the U.S. as I have already here. I forgot how much I particularly hate smelling it while I eat and am delighted that our country has banned smoking from most public places. 

As the kids and I stroll around, we have been stopped several times by people asking for directions or chatted up by locals. I am pleased that we don't appear to be tourists and hope that we continue to blend in. Of course, as soon as I open my mouth, the deception is revealed. 

Cheers from the Comic City!