Lovely Antwerp (and one of the worst journeys of my life)

Mon 22 – Mon 29 July 2019

Antwerp

I have a general rule of not travelling in summer and staying in London. Not least because it’s a crap time to travel with kids on holiday, strikes, and hot weather. Plus London in summer is a cool place. It’s better, for me, to travel in more obscure times when London weather is crap and the kids are at school.

However, me and Dave decided to go for a long weekend to Antwerp to mark the end of my sabbatical – big mistake. Antwerp itself is a fun city in northern Belgium. It’s an eclectic and historical place to stroll around plus the people are beautiful and there’s a good gay scene.

The FlixBus journey from Hell

Big mistake was to decide to travel by a new tech-based, eco-friendly coach service – FlixBus. OK, going out, we ended up travelling London to Belgium on the hottest day of the year. And some problems were beyond Flixbus’ control like the bad service of the Euro Shuttle. But many aspects of the journey displayed if you pay cheap then you get shit.

Both ways the driver had to cope on his own with a multitude of problems (the bus was packed both ways) and this slowed down the journey. Going out we arrived 5 and a half hours late – 1.45 am instead of 8.10 pm. And when the engine had to be turned off (i.e. waiting to board Euro Shuttle and on the train itself) the internal temperature reached 37 degrees, dangerous to human health.

Coming back we were only an hour and a quarter late but the coach toilet was broken so a 10 hour coach journey with no loo. Basically I didn’t drink on the bus which left me feeling very dehydrated and ill. 🙁

I have complained to FlixBus, their response has been awful. Currently they have offered a one way (!) free trip as compensation. 🙁 Obviously I have used social media to vent my anger and have been met with the ire of some tech evangelists who see FlixBus as a great example of how digital can reinvent and transform a traditional service.

Antwerp museums: Rubenshuis

Antwerp itself was great and we tried not to let our poor travel experience ruin everything. Our hotel was fine. First day we decided to visit museums. In Europe, entrance to museums has to be paid for and is expensive. This meant that we did not do the museum / gallery hopping so easy to do in the UK. Instead we decided to target two particular ones: the Rubenshuis and the MAS, Museum ann der Stroom. Basically MAS is the museum of Antwerp.

Rubenshuis was good though half closed because of the heat. This meant entrance fee was 6 Euros instead of 8. Still very atmospheric of Rubens’ life and times though there is little of his actual artwork there. The dark and religious interior reminded me of the Spanish influence on this part of the world, when it used to be the Spanish Netherlands. Lovely garden to chill in.

MAS

Then onto MAS with its iconic external appearance. It does have some great content but the building itself is awfully designed and the staff dire. It’s a concrete tower and you aren’t allowed to use the lift. Instead you are forced onto umpteen escalators. And on each floor the collections are hidden behind multiple doors in concrete rooms with very few people about.

The staff themselves veer from just ignoring to being downright rude. Like when we tried to take the lift and were told off. ‘You must use the escalators, can’t you understand English? Oh you think our signs are unclear then perhaps you should write some new ones for us.’

On each level, you would walk into a gallery passing through at least 2 doors not knowing whether you were allowed in. Then find a couple of staff just chatting to each other. In every gallery we went into, no staff either spoke to us or tried to engage. Apart from one who told us to take our back pack off and carry it. 🙁

Markets and drinks

Second and third day, the rain poured. 🙁 But we spent a lot of time hanging in the covered market that appeared overnight outside our hotel. Antwerp is the Belgian equivalent of a depressed British northern town but it is far more interesting. There are loads of place to have a drink and we frequently used these to just sit and watch the world go by.

Antwerp: wonderful just to wander around plus great food and drink

And we spent a lot of time over the weekend wandering around the city looking at its landmarks like the Cathedral, Grotemarkt (city square), and the waterfront. Antwerp has loads of wonderful 17th century buildings as well as some modern ones including from the Art Nouveau era. And it is a friendly city for pedestrians with relatively few cars but lots of bikes. Especially those wonderful heavy Dutch-type ones that people seemed to ride with such ease.

Cup of coffee

Antwerp has loads of great ‘cafes’ to stop for coffee, wine or beer. Definite coffee culture but Belgium is well known for its beer. Plus loads of places to eat ‘traditional’ Belgian food like mussels, burgers, croquettes, waffles, and ice cream. When you are on holiday sometimes you just have to go with the stereotype to enjoy the experience.

I would definitely visit Antwerp again and stay longer

Despite the extremes of weather, indifferent staff in expensive museums, and a nightmare journey – I would visit Antwerp again. Next time I will stay longer and use it as a base to go out to nearby interesting places. These include Ghent, Bruges, Brussels, and Rotterdam. Antwerp train station is actually a building that has to be experienced in its own right. A piece of 19th century art from the city’s heyday and operating today on different levels.

As I will stay longer so I will spend more on my travel (Eurostar?). Perhaps the extended stay would even justify the climate damage of a flight to Brussels or Amsterdam. There are many other places still to visit like the Red Star Line Museum (covering the movement of migrants from Antwerp to America). Dave visited this previously and highly recommended it.

Lessons learnt from the Antwerp trip

I don’t always take lessons from going away but interestingly there are 3 lessons I took from this trip.

First lesson: Travel during summer does not work particularly for short trips

The rise of the climate emergency means super temperatures are going to become normal. I intend to stay in the UK when it is hot and only travel to enjoy the heat elsewhere during our cool periods. And I probably will fly but that means I must also spend long periods in places – a week at least. That does mean I will get to know places better. And, let’s be honest, short trips anywhere by plane are one of the main things making the climate emergency worse.

So I will do more short travel in the UK in summer (by coach and train) to make up for the weekends I would have flown abroad. Indeed, there are many places in the UK that I would like to visit especially some of the amazing museums and galleries we have. I was looking at this site with the winners and shortlisted places for UK Museum of the Year. What an amazing array of places to check out. 🙂

Second lesson: A turd is still a turd even if it is polished with lots of digital

I am a tech enthusisast. I love the new opportunities it gives. So when I saw this exciting new app-based, ‘environmental’ European bus service with a real buzz about it then I decided to try it. However my horrible experience shows that a digital tart-up of a renowned crap thing like coaches still leaves them crap. The tech angle might make some things better (booking a ticket) but it does not deal with the inherent faults of a service. Plus that service can actually be made better by non-tech aspects.

The journey would have been so much faster with an extra staff member to help the driver who had to cope solo with pinch points. These included checking people in, loading and unloading bags, chasing passengers who wandered off, liaising with customs and passport control, and dealing with irate customers concerning missed connections. If that small increased cost is too much then accept all you are offering it is the cheapest possible service designed for people who really have no other option.

Third lesson: Only do a job if you enjoy it

This trip really brought customer service to a fore. From the outward driver who did everything he could to help his passengers but was backed-up by company ‘customer service’ could not care less. And staff in museums and galleries who could not give a monkey’s. Why work in a public facing service if you don’t like the public? Now I’m not saying people in Antwerp are ruder than any other city. Paris is renowned and I think Londoners are also incredibly rude. But I’m left wondering why do a job you don’t like and take it out on the people you are supposed to be helping?

I know people will tell me that everyone simply needs to earn money to live. But life is short and for your own sake, plus the people you are providing a service to, do something you enjoy and have a passion about. If you don’t like the public then don’t have a job liaising with them. Create the job you want to do and life will be better for everybody. And if you really have to do a job you don’t want then don’t take it out on people who are paying your wages (hello Transport for London).

Books and Reading

‘Rabbit is rich’

Finished the 3rd installment by John Updike last week on the life of a ‘typical’ late 20th century American man. Our hero is Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom but is he really more of an anti-hero? Is Harry sinner or more sinned against than sinning?

Tired lion

I loved this book like the other 2 before. I can empathise so much with this story of a man moving through life and fucking things up then trying to make them better. That constant question of whether to have taken the radical option when younger and whether life can be anything more than dull middle class after the choices taken. How true that rings for me.

‘Rabbit is rich’ explores Harry as a moderately successful businessman in late 70s America as the country dealt with inflation, economic slowdown and the Iranian hostage situation. I remember it all. But he is also dealing with lots of family problems not least his relationship with his son. I look forward to the next and final book ‘Rabbit at rest’ as we look at the winter of Harry’s life. That feels like where I feel I am heading.

Health and Efficiency

Mission accomplished

range of dumbells

At the end of each blog, I do ‘The Week Ahead’ to map out for myself as much as anybody what I aim to achieve in the following week. My thinking is very much future-focused. And I am pleased to say that I met my planned exercise target last week: gym on Mon, yoga on Tues, and jog-run on Wed.

Yoga in the park

woman doing yoga

Really pleased that I was able to take advantage of the climate emergency sunshine (every cloud etc) and do a yoga session in the park. I love the experience of having the sun on my body, a breeze cooling me down as I sweat with effort, and welcome sound distractions as I battle the discomfort. As always, I felt great after my yoga session – wonderfully stretched.

A decent 5K despite the heat

man jogging

The good feeling from yoga the day before helped to encourage me to do a short jog-run on Wed despite the temperature (if only I had known about next day’s coach trip). Out around 9.30 before it got too hot and tried to keep in the shade as I ran. Moderately decent time at 30 mins and 45 seconds for 5K and an overall pace of about 6.11 mins per km. Perfectly fine with the heat and getting stuck at a couple of busy road crossings.

INR

warfarin tablets

Hopefully, my recent weight loss has postponed the inevitable heart attack / stroke / cancer. But I missed taking meds on one day and so when I had my INR test done last Tues, it showed my blood was prone to clotting. Thus back again in a week’s time to ensure it was just an aberration.

Personal Development

There is no point in things being the same

Last week heralded the start of the final fortnight of my beloved sabbatical. My main focus has been exercise and losing weight with some major success – 10 pounds lost. 🙂 It would be crazy to have this precious experience and then go back to doing everything the same.

Taking forward practical changes

So I contacted work in advance of my return. They have agreed that I will be changing my working days. My new working arrangement will be all day Wednesday (as before). This is the same day my job-share Dilhani will also be in. But the other 2 days will be spread across the afternoons of Mon, Tues, Thurs, Fri. That leaves me free to continue my new regime of exercising each morning and using that to enable me to skip eating before 12 noon.

The Week Ahead

  • My final week before I return to work. 🙁 Treating myself to a massage on Fri.
  • INR on Tues as it was a fuck-up last week
  • Exercise: 2 jog-runs planned (though it’s Ride London at the weekend and this always screws things up), 3 gym outings, and a yoga session on Thurs. Hopefully the later will be in the park if the weather is good enough. 🙂
  • Aiming to finish ‘Rabbit at Rest’ (the 4th and final book in the saga). Also Velvet Page on Thurs with the author attending but I don’t think I like the book… 🙁
  • Push onwards with language learning
  • I’ve also got access back for my work emails now. So fingers crossed I can keep my own inbox unread number down to zero despite having double the amount of emails to read through.

And Finally…

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