I never understood people who said things like “Once the kids are grown up and gone, [INSERT SPOUSE’S NAME HERE] and I want to travel.”
I always think “Why not travel with the kids now?” Anna points out her next vacation destination on this subway mural. Looks like somewhere in the Mediterranean or perhaps North Africa. Either will do.
I’m too fidgety to spend 18 years nesting and watching the suitcases collect dust. The world will have changed and I will have missed it, plus there’s that what-if-I-get-hit-by-a-bus-tomorrow theory (a dump truck hit me the week before Thanksgiving, so the likelihood of being hit by any vehicle seems pretty probable to me).
I also strongly believe travel is one of the best forms of education available to children. Where else can they learn about culture and language, apply math skills with money, hone their navigational and people skills, and learn the lesson of being happy with what you have –such as being happy with what’s in your suitcase and learning to wear the purple shirt that’s packed instead of whining about the pink shirt stuffed in a drawer 3,600 miles away?
So instead of saving money and nesting, we kissed a few thousand dollars goodbye in Belgium–a country that shares France’s good taste and charm without the attitude.
If someone ever asks Anna where was the first place she ever tried ice skating (because that question often comes up during speed dating) she can proudly say Belgium. Bruges, if she wants to be specific and impress. We did a half dozen spins around the rink before Anna proclaimed fatigue and begged to get out of her skates. Our first rotation was an excruciating 10-minute exercise that could have been mistaken for angry interpretive dance. By the sixth rotation, we weren’t quite channeling Dorothy Hamill (did that just reveal my age???), but there was genuine gliding across the ice.
The day after ice skating, we headed into Brussels for an afternoon of sightseeing. We hit the comic strip museum, the Atomium, and Mini-Europe. The Museum of Comic Strip Art reminded me of the Friet Museum–a bubble gum-sweet love letter to doodling. Though, to be fair, the artwork in this museum went beyond doodling. Where else can you find homosexual erotica in French, classic superhero graphic novel drama, and the Smurfs all under one roof?
The 20-year-old museum was created by a handful of die-hard comic book fans who renovated an Art Nouveau building designed by architect Victor Horta. The building, once a department store, is now a series of galleries circling a wide, dramatic staircase. (Is it a Belgian tradition to take a passion or a fetish and turn it into a museum?) The 20th century was a prolific one for Belgian comic strip artists and their imaginations have been thoughtfully encapsulated in this museum. This former department store now houses 6,000 original plates and life-size cartoon sets.
After a hot waffle and even hotter hot chocolate, we schlepped out to the Atomium, which required a 20-minute subway ride to the suburbs. Built in 1958 for the World Fair, the Atomium is an iron atom magnified 165 billion times and towers over Mini-Europe. Inside the center ball of the atom (can I call it a nucleus? I don’t know…) is a snack bar serving ice cream and beer.
Is this what Andre Waterkeyn envisioned a half century ago? Who can say. I see the Atomium as the ultimate mid-century design (which you can also find at the snack bar). Forget the Bertoia chair or an Eames sofa. Waterkyn fused science and art by taking something unnoticed and undervalued–a ubiquitous molecule found throughout any Rust Belt small town on both sides of the pond–and blew it up to the point where it commanded not just acknowledgement, but jaw-dropping awe. You’ll never look at iron the same way again.
From inside the Atomium…
…and from the outside…
Next to the Atomium is Mini-Europe, which Anna perceived as a series of fancy dollhouses and castles. The best part about this exhibit is that as we were walking in, a French-speaking family approached us holding a ticket. I thought they were asking us for directions, but they were offering us a free ticket. They had a spare to spare. I thought Mini-Europe was just Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower and a few o
ther Euro architectual icons, but instead it’s a thorough examination of every recognizable edifice in the EU.
I wish we had had more time in Brussels. I wish we had had more time in Belgium. But it was Christmas Eve the day we were in Brussels and it was time to get shopping for some of these: