Amidst heavy snowstorms I set out on my quest, my heart in good spirits and my socks extra warm, to bring home digital pictures a-plenty of Antwerp, many a valuable impression, Belgian chocolates by the box, the one or the other fashion find (hey, I’m still me afterall), and to escape my mother’s constant nagging (Sure do hope this is not hereditary…). I can be an adventurer.
My journey begins at Cologne central station, where I board the ICE to Brussels. Based on my experiences on previous international train rides, I have reserved my seat when booking the ticket. Alas, the Eurocrat next to my seat has not taken that kind of provision, (Should my tax Euros not suffice for him to pay the 2â‚¬ extra for the reservation?) and I kindly remind him that I’ve got a reservation for the seat currently under occupation by his paperwork while he’s balancing a laptop on his knees (indeed, there’s wi-fi on ICEs) and a coffee paper-cup between his shin and the seat in front of him. Apparently, I’m charming enough for him to clear up while I stow away my trolley in the suitcase rack in the middle of the compartment. (That, or he understands I’m not up to negotiating my seat when I drop a fashion and a science mag and my micro-fleece cuddle blanket on the seat I’ve paid for while he hasn’t made a reservation for his as I can tell from the neat little overhead digital display.) Eventually he even moves to a different row. Wonder if this has got anything to do with me devouring a sandwich while stretching my legs and looking over his shoulder while he’s reading his email? I can be a diplomat.
My room isn’t ready yet as I arrive in Antwerp around noon. Despair? Panic? Anger? Nah, seizing the opportunity’s the way to go. Since I’ve booked a pretty central hotel, I just drop off my luggage and stroll off to the Meir, Antwerp’s main shopping street. During recent years, Antwerp’s been emerging as one of Europe’s fashion capitals. The street is lined with fashion shops of all kinds and price ranges. (If you go there and must tote your male significant other along, there also are two huge electronics stores. There’s hardly anything more annoying than bored men standing in the way between a rack full of clothes I want to take a look at and me.) I’m blissfully happy. This is the beginning of a wonderful friendship. I introduce myself to a few shops (Froylein, this is a neat fashion place. Neat fashion place, this is Froylein), and five hours and several shopping bags later, I’m back at my hotel. I’m in shopping heaven. One day after a few hours of sightseeing, a not unfamiliar discomfort tells me I’ve got a blister on my heel. The one time I don’t have those blister band aids on me. And there still are shoes to be tried on. I ignore the pain and shop for shoes. I can be a hero.
Antwerp’s got way more to offer than just shopping though. There’s the Diamond Museum, the Plantin Moretus Museum, the Rubens House, the old city…
Antwerp’s diamonds make up half of Belgium’s exports, and even with low-cost labour countries gaining more and more territory in that field, Antwerp still is the world capital of diamond cutting. The Diamond Museum offers its visitors insights into the physical aspects of diamonds as well as into the history and art of diamond cutting as well as of the political, social and historical issues of diamond trade. In addition, there are varying exhibits of masterpieces of diamond jewellery dating from different eras. Several of the pieces are donations or long-term loans to the museum. An outstanding floral Art Nouveau tiara conquers my heart. Why would anybody give a piece like that to a museum? I’d wear it in bed with my PJs!
Plantin and his son-in-law Moretus were contemporaries of MOT Johannes Gutenberg, and just like him they were pioneers of bookprint. In their time and age, it actually were the bookprinters that decided what books went into print, so the freedom of the press indeed did belong to those that controlled the presses. Influenced by the ideals of Humanism, Seneca’s Stoicism and his interest in science, Plantin printed quite a few groundworks of modern-day thinking and worldview and at the same time proved to be a skilled diplomat in times of religious turmoil in the aftermaths of the Reformation. The museum is located in a four-wing building complex that once was home to Plantin’s family and his craftshop; handwritten books, important early prints, the printshop, the family’s invaluable collection of books, and rooms as they were back in the day (minus the people, of course) are on display there.
Plantin’s friend Peter Paul Rubens also lived and worked in Antwerp for a long while. His home and studio have been made open to the public. There visitors can marvel at Ruben’s architecture and painting skills as well as his deep-rooted interest in Ancient philosophy and mythology and the cultural and political revolutions of his time.
Plantin, Moretus and Rubens beat wannabe-artist hipsters by far. BTW, hipsters in in the Flemish version are just as pathetic overseas peers. Uomo universale: hot. Hipster: lukewarm. I can be sophisticated.
Antwerp’s home to Europe’s largest Chasidic community. Antwerp’s Jewish diamond cutters and traders have gained fame worldwide and have sparked the creativity of, among others, Noah Gordon (reading recommendation: Jerusalem Diamond). While in earlier days the community apparently settled mostly in the city centre, the arrival of the railway and along with it that of international diamond traders at Antwerp’s central station made it a necessity, out of security reasons, to pursue business close to the station. Gradually, the community developed in the surroundings of the station, which is within a few minutes’ walking distance from the Meir. The Antwerp eruv encloses large parts of the city centre. Kosher food is easily available; even general supermarkets offer food with a hechsher.
Chasidic kids running errands by themselves in the city centre tell me that the community there perceives itself as relatively safe and well-integrated. But how does one tell, let’s say, an American and a Belgian Chasid apart? It’s the vibe, the little things you cannot really pinpoint, but that also tell you the difference between a secular Caucasian Northern American and a secular European. When it comes to women, the distinction is pretty easy; European women usually do not wear dark lipstick in the day.
So, there they are, the American frummies. First I spot two teenage girls; the unshapely skirts, the so many-seasons-ago and definitely not made for the mild current temperatures of Antwerp down-coats scream ‘Lakewood’. Indeed, when they overhear me talking in English to a cashier, they even greet me in English – though I am clad in skinny denims, tuck into 4â€-heels Miss Sixty boots, plus a pistachio-olive greenish / greyish (one of the up-and-coming shades in fashion) parka. Languages do help bonding afterall. The following day I see those girls again. This time they are wearing the previous day’s purchase: semi-opaque tights. Some people’s 60 denier, other people’s experience of liberty and sassiness. Poor girls…
On a later occasion I’m at the checkout line behind some MO male my age. He buys snacks and a box of generic paper tissues. The latter almost prompts me to say, â€œI take it you’re single.â€ But I bite my tongue and am nice. Wouldn’t want to cause him embarrassment. I can be a philanthropist.