Sunday, 19 February: Wowed by Waffles, Enchanted by Chocolate, Surrounded by Speculoos

Hey, everyone! After delays in posting on this blog, I’m trying to catch up a bit. Thankfully, we just ended midterms here at the Fund, so I have some free time to write and – hopefully – enjoy the Carnavál festivities this weekend. Descriptions of those will have to wait until the next post, of course!

In my last post, I left you all with a bit of a cliffhanger: after a fantastic weekend in Florence, I was in for un día de retos (a day of challenges). I left the apartment around 4:20 a.m. and started walking to Florence’s Amerigo Vespucci Airport. Nope: I did not head for a bus or train station but rather right for the airport, about 10 kilometers (or 6.2 miles) from the apartment. I can practically hear you screaming at me right now: How could I be so 1) stupid and 2) reckless?! Well, 1) I was too bashful to ask Pam or really anyone else for transportation to the airport or the ways to get myself there other than on foot and 2) there did not appear to be many other options when I looked online. Even though nothing horrible happened to me, what I did makes for good advice to travelers and an entertaining anecdote on what not to do and not anything more.

Anyway, I made my way through Florence’s historic (and tourist) district and north through its more “regular” section to the entrance to its airport. By “entrance,” I mean the beginning of the airport’s property: it took me another 20 minutes and a terrifying moment when I could not get to the road to the airport terminal before I arrived at the actual airport just before 6 a.m. When I got there, I was in for a less-than-pleasant surprise.

It turns out that my flight from Florence to Madrid at 7 was overbooked. Because I had been my usual stingy self, I had not selected a seat when I had purchased my tickets for the flight. Therefore, along with ten or so other people, I was put in a limbo of checking for open seats on the plane between 6:20 and the plane’s take-off. Four people did get seats on the flight; I, unfortunately, was not one of them.

The remaining six people and me received food and drink coupons for the cafe downstairs and were told that in twenty minutes a van would take us from Florence to Bologna free of charge for a flight from that city’s airport to Madrid. Though obviously not the happiest of campers in the current circumstances, I was grateful for the hot chocolate and fruit pastry I received. Around 7:30, our group left the airport and headed north from Florence, through some mountains (spectacular, though very foggy), and into Bologna. The whole journey took about an hour and a half. When we arrived at the airport, we found out that our flight would be at 12:35, giving us some time before checking in at the airline’s desk and going through security. With the airport’s free wi-fi, I notified my internship coordinator and my boss at the library that I would be late for at least the first session of talleres that evening with my apologies. They both were extremely understanding, and their patience and support, along with that of my family and friends, really helped me make it through the day.

Our flight from Bologna was delayed (by this point I was not surprised) but otherwise went smoothly. I arrived in Madrid Barajas Airport around 3:30 and, after going from the airport to Atocha Train Station to Toledo’s train station, at the library just after 6:30, just in time to direct the grupo infantil (younger group for people 8-13). The presentation went well, and the kids’ energy boosted my own energy. They really like the video with which I started the presentation: “How Animals Eat Their Food” is a classic. When I got home at 8:25, my host family welcomed me warmly and gave me a delicious dinner (as is the usual from them!). Shortly after that, I collapsed into bed, I think with good reason.

Monday was certainly a crazy and challenging day, but, thanks to friends, family, and God, I survived it and even found myself – if not joyous – tranquil through most of it. That doesn’t mean I ever want to repeat it, of course. Fingers crossed that it doesn’t happen again!

The next days were pretty much business as usual at the Fund, although we did go over the format of midterm exams, taking place the next week, in each of my classes. We would write an essay for Politics and Society of Latin America and have a regular class for the internship course, while theology, Spain Since 1936, and art would all have actual tests.

On Tuesday, I showed up (on time, yes!) to the library and met with the grupo juvenil (adolescent group for people 14-25) at 5 p.m. This session went well, too, restoring my confidence from the faulty start the previous week and making me eager to continue with the sessions in the coming weeks. As had occurred the last week, the one child signed up for the grupo infantil at 6:30 never appeared, so I worked more on next week’s presentation on sports and then left the library.

Thursday, my long day due to the three courses I have during it, was made a bit longer by a double session of Christian, Muslim, and Jewish Art. We had our usual visit to a building in the morning and two lectures on classical and flamígero/Isabelino Gothic architecture in the afternoon. We’ll have another double lecture in a few weeks, but we’ll also have a day without class, so it all evens out in the end.

Regarding our visit in the morning, I came back to and saw more of a site I had visited with my host mother my first weekend in Toledo: the church and monastery of San Juan de los Reyes (Saint John of the Kings/Rulers). Begun in 1477, this complex is an example of gótico flamígero, a late period in the development of Gothic architecture, lasting between approximately the 15th through 16th centuries. This style added more decorative elements and stretched the Gothic focus on height even higher (hence the name flamígero, “flaming,” like a flame reaching for heaven).

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San Juan de Loy Reyes Church, courtesy of Panoramio.

The construction of the monastery and church was ordered by Isabel and Fernando, the Reyes Católicos or Spanish Monarchs of Spain in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. They dedicated the church to Saint John the Evangelist, whose symbol of the eagle also figured in the royal coat of arms of Spain. Thus, even though it was the Franciscan religious order that eventually populated the monastery, the complex received its current name from its founders and their patron saint. San Juan de los Reyes was also a show of royal power over the region of Castilla-La Mancha, as just the previous year the Crown had defeated the army of Portugal in the Battle of Toro. Isabel and Fernando even planned to have their tombs placed in the church’s crossing (the part where the vertical and horizontal arms of the cross-shape of most churches meet). Plans changed, however, when they defeated the Sultan of Granada, the last Muslim ruler in Spain, in 1492; the monarchs selected Granada as their final resting place after their victory.

The church is in the midst of restoration work, but it still provided an impressive sight. The cloister adjoining it did, as well, with elegant stone arches and statues of saints on the bottom level and an incredible artesonado (coffered ceiling) with heavy royal symbolism painted on it on the upper level.

The next morning was quite similar to my Friday the previous week: I got up early, took the 6:25 train to Madrid, and made my way to the airport for a 9:25 a.m. flight, this week to Brussels, Belgium. I was heading there with three of the other SNC students studying in Toledo and meeting my friend Sarah, studying abroad in Lille this semester, there, as well. (You should totally check out her blog, by the way!) Over the weekend, I would be staying at and accompanying my friends on a tour of Grimbergen Abbey, a Norbertine abbey I had visited in January of 2015 as part of a research trip with the Center for Norbertine Studies. I was extremely excited to return to Grimbergen and deeply grateful to the canons there for letting me stay there (in one of their spacious and comfortable guest rooms, no less) for the weekend.

After making my way from the airport by train (and a very nice, if somewhat long, 5-K walk) to Grimbergen, “checking in,” and resting for a couple of hours, I headed back into Brussels and met with the SNC students in the Grand Place or Grote Markt, the most famous plaza in Brussels. Sidenote: Belgium has a northern region, Flanders, that mainly speaks Flemish, a variety of Dutch, and a southern region, Wallonia, that mainly speaks French. Brussels, near the center of the country, is officially bilingual, and many people in Belgium can speak both French and Dutch (if not also English and perhaps German, too). That’s why the Grand Place/Grote Markt goes by two names. Now you know!

I had been in the center of Brussels two years before, so I showed my friends around a bit, and then we got waffles. I chose a speculoos waffle, giving me the chance to experience the spread-version of this delicious traditional Dutch cookie for the first time in months (I had brought home a jar of the stuff with me when I left two years ago!). Speculoos tastes like gingerbread but is a bit sweeter, and it is popular as a cookie year-round in Belgium and as a flavor for other products, like the spread I had on top of my waffle.

After having our waffles and walking around a bit, we had a late dinner in an Italian restaurant (nope, not Belgian), where I enjoyed a Leffe beer, made with a recipe and the name of Leffe Abbey, a Norbertine abbey in Belgium. Grimbergen also has an agreement with a brewing company to brew beer with its name and recipes from its past; I would try one of those the next day!

On Saturday morning, I met the SNC group in front of Grimbergen’s church for a tour of the church and abbey from Father Koen, one of the canons. He gave us a detailed, friendly tour of the incredible church (never fully completed) and abbey. Grimbergen is the oldest surviving Norbertine community, having been founded by Saint Norbert himself in 1126. The abbey’s foundation charter, however, dates from 1128, but those two years don’t make a great deal of difference when considering its age. They abbey has burnt down or been destroyed several times throughout the centuries, including after the French invasion of Belgium in the early 1800s. Each time, though, the community has returned and rebuilt, leading to its adoption of the phoenix as its symbol.

Once our tour had ended and we had thanked Father Koen for sharing his time and knowledge with us, we walked a bit around the town of Grimbergen and enjoyed some Grimbergen beers in a restaurant bordering the church square. Though I am by no means an expert in beer (or wine, or spirits, or basically any drink other than water [maybe]), I really enjoyed the Grimbergen Blonde I had ordered. Those canons centuries ago knew what they were doing, apparently!

After our time in Grimbergen, we caught a bus into Brussels and made our way to Maison Dandoy, the tea house and gourmet waffle vendor I had visited two years ago. Maison Dandoy did not disappoint this time, either: I had a pancake (a crepe, then, in Belgium) with brown sugar and butter, and I shared a speculoos milkshake with Sarah. Both were delicious beyond description, and I was happy to enjoy this incredible eatery once again in the company of friends.

Once we were done at Maison Dandoy, Sarah, Claudia, and I headed to Brussels Nord train station. We originally planned to go to Leuven, but there had been a derailment, so we changed our plans and got tickets to Antwerp, instead. We ended up getting off one stop earlier than the train station: other passengers had gotten up to wait for that station, and we got yelled at by one of the train workers since we had gotten off just before the train left. Things turned out well enough, however, as we quickly found a fritterie (fry shop) where we enjoyed massive quantities of that Belgian specialty, French fries. (Confused as to why French fries are a Belgian tradition? You can thank Americans. Find out why here.) We then walked to the cathedral of Antwerp (unfortunately closed) and walked around the city center for a bit. Striking out from there, we found our way to what should have been our train stop earlier, the train station of Antwerp.

Not getting off at the station made our approach to and entrance into it all the more stupefying. Built between 1895 and 1905, it falls into many different categories of architectural style but is singular in its beauty. As we waited for our train back to Brussels, Sarah, Claudia, and I looked in awe at the interior of this amazing building. Once back in the capital, we parted for the night as I headed back to Grimbergen by bus.

On Sunday, I breakfasted with the Norbertines, as I had done on Saturday morning, too. Belgian breakfast is usually bread with cheese, jam, or another spread. I made sure to take advantage of the speculoos spread on the table! At 10 a.m., I attended Mass in the abbey’s church. Mass at this time is done in Gregorian chant from a choir led by one of the Norbertines and composed of both abbey and lay members. It was just as beautiful as the Mass I had attended two years ago, and a bit warmer than that one, too! (Grimbergen’s church, like most old churches in Europe, doesn’t have any heating).

After and before Mass on Sundays, Grimbergen has a market in the square and street outside of the church. You can even order chicken, potatoes, and other hot foods to pick up after the mass and enjoy at home! After the service, I first headed to the chocolate shop I had visited two years ago and purchased some pralines (filled chocolates for which Belgium is famous) for my host family and me. Then, I walked through the vendors, enjoyed some free samples, and purchased a lolly-waffle, a delicious portable version of one of Belgium’s most famous foods.

After a light lunch, I walked to the Vilvoorde train station and got a ticket for Bruges, where I would meet the other SNC students. Bruges is called “the Venice of the North” for its canals. Even though we only saw two such canals (I don’t know where we were supposed to go to see more), I was enchanted by the marvelous architecture of the city. After walking by two marvelous churches, I met my friends in Bruge’s main square (Markt), bordered by stores, restaurants, the Provincial Hof (House), and the imposing Belfort, the city’s bell tower. After looking around the square, we made our way to the Burg square, then over a canal (stopping to take many pictures, of course!) and back to the Markt. During our walk, we saw an adorable Christmas store (with very expensive ornaments – no touching!) and a lot of chocolate shops. I stopped in one of them and purchased some sweets for my mother, a fellow sweet-tooth, and, yes, myself.

Our time in Bruges was magical, but it was also informative, in a way. We ended up eating dinner at Quick, a European fast-food restaurant. Here’s the scoop, everyone: European fast food is basically the same as American fast food. My fries did have mayo as a condiment option, though, and I heartily enjoyed it (mayo is the most common condiment for fries in Belgium)!

After dinner, we walked back to the Bruges train station. Sarah, who was supposed to take a bus, found out she had to take a train and had to hurry to board it. It was wonderful to meet with her over the weekend and catch up, and I hope we get to do so again at some point this semester. Thanks for everything, Sarah!

The other Toledo students and I headed back to Brussels. I went straight to the airport: Since my flight to Madrid was at 7 a.m. the next morning, it was easier to go right from Bruges to the airport rather than go to Grimbergen or book a hostel for one night. I arrived around 10:30 p.m. and settled in for what turned out to be a sleepless but productive night. I had the opportunity to video chat with my oldest sister and my mom (and dad and uncle, who made some cameos) for the first time in four weeks. I hope to do so more regularly with them in the future, because talking with them, even though it brings pangs of homesickness, also helps me to be grateful for where I am now and to keep going each day in the knowledge of their love for and support of me. To my family: thank you, and I love you!

Even though this technically took place after Sunday, I’ll go ahead and let it be known that my flight on Monday went off without a hitch. Claudia was taking the same flight as me, and we showed up in plenty of time to our gate. Our flight even landed 15 minutes ahead of schedule in Madrid at 9 a.m., the first time a RyanAir flight I have taken has arrived on or ahead of schedule (even though apparently 90% of the company’s flights arrive on time – hmm…). I hope it is a trend that will continue!

The past week started with a día de retos but ended with new memories of friendship, family, history, and – what else – chocolate. Through it, I was reminded that, whatever the events that happen to me through my decisions or through happenstance, I have some incredible people around me who guide and love me at each step and to whom, I hope, I provide love and guidance in turn. I thank God for the past week, for the calm I experienced as I made my long way from Florence to Toledo; for the many beautiful sights in Belgium; for the generous and friendly canons of Grimbergen Abbey, for the friends with whom I traveled; for chocolate, waffles, and speculoos; for who I am and what I’ve learned; for family; and, above all, for God. Thanks be to God for you, too, reader: remember that you’re amazing and have an amazing life to live! Thank you for reading this post (which will get more pictures in the future: sorry!). Until the next installment, vaarwel (goodbye)!

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