A trip to Belgium for a Microsoft TechDays event isn’t something I do every day, but it’s not that off the wall, either. The decision to fly up to Denmark one morning and fly back that afternoon, to meet with a friend and colleague I knew only from Facebook, was probably one of the more impulsive things I’ve done in the last twenty years – second only to marrying a doctor I met on the Internet back in 1994. But hey, that other one turned out pretty well, so I figured I’d give spontaneity another whirl. And I’m glad I did.
I’ll admit I had some second thoughts. Navigating through the Brussels airport, dealing with French-speaking taxi drivers and hotel personnel, learning new customs and cultures and ways of doing things on the fly was already a bit of a challenge, but Tom and I were at least doing it together. Flying off, by myself, to a country I’d never visited (and that nobody I knew in “real life” had ever visited) seemed less adventurous and more foolhardy the night before I was scheduled to go. I didn’t get much sleep that night (about two hours).
The adventure started before I ever left the hotel. The night before, I had arranged with the desk clerk to have a taxi come for me at 4:30 a.m., to get me to the airport in plenty of time for my 6:30 flight. The drive from Nivelles to Brussels was around half an hour, and Denmark and Belgium are both parties to the Schengen Agreement, which means traveling from one to the other is more like traveling within the states in the U.S. than traveling internationally.
When I got downstairs at 3:50 a.m., I found the lobby completely empty, the front desk unoccupied. There was no sign of any staff members and the lights were off. And 4:00 a.m. came and went with no taxi (or anyone else) showing up out front.
I went looking around and finally found the man who had been serving drinks at the hotel bar the night before. Between my little bit of French and his little bit of English, I was able to communicate to him that the desk clerk had ordered me a taxi for 4:00 a.m. and it was now 4:15. He went behind the desk and got on the phone, spoke rapid French to someone, hung up, called someone else and spoke rapid French for a while. Meanwhile, I’m wondering if I should just go back up to the room and go to sleep.
Finally, he turned to me with a beaming smile and told me the taxi was on the way. So we waited together, smiling at each other, neither wanting to try jumping the language hurdle. When the taxi wasn’t there by 4:30, he started explaining to me that (I finally pieced together), the local taxi company didn’t open until 6:00 so he had a cab coming all the way from Brussels. I signaled that I understood, and we smiled and nodded for a while longer. To add further context, it wasn’t just early; it was also cold and rainy (apparently it’s almost always rainy in Belgium – Europe’s version of Seattle. Maybe Microsoft picked it for TechDays because it felt so much like home.)
Finally a car pulled up in front of the hotel. The hotel staffer indicated this was my cab, and beamed proudly at having accomplished his mission. The driver whisked me into the back seat of his SUV – which had no taxi company markings or posted licenses or anything to indicate that it really was a legitimate cab – and took off. As we sped off onto the dark, deserted streets, approximately 5000 miles from my home, I had a few fleeting moments of wondering whether I was being kidnapped by the Belgian Mafia, the Brabant Walloon killers, or one of the other criminal elements I’d read about when I researched the country.
However, we got to the airport without incident, and I made my flight. The driver insisted on helping me with my one small bag, and when I gave him a four twenty euro bills for a €65 tab and he didn’t have change, he gave me back one of the twenties and told me to keep it! Now that’s a first. I gave him back the twenty and told him to keep the change as a tip.
The experience at Brussels National Airport that morning almost made me wish I lived in Europe. I’d forgotten how nice it is to go through security and not have to take your shoes off. Seriously, just that one difference made the lines go at least twice as fast. I’m all for real security measures, but too many of our TSA rules seem aimed more at humiliation and intimidation than detection of real dangers.
After a short wait at the gate, I was on the plane, and impressed by the friendliness of the flight attendants in comparison to some I’ve encountered on domestic U.S. flights (those on the transatlantic flight from JFK to Brussels were great, too). They served hot coffee, which I needed badly, and came back several times during the short flight to ask if I wanted more. The plane was only about 1/3 full, so I had my own row, as did most of the other passengers who weren’t traveling with companions.
It was a short flight, about an hour and a half. As we approached Denmark, the sun was just coming up over the North Sea and it was one of the most awesome sights I’ve ever seen. The photos I was able to take with my smart phone were nice, but didn’t do justice to the real thing.
The partially frozen sea stretched to the horizon, and it looked like a fairyland, something out of Chronicles of Narnia, maybe – I felt as if I’d gone through the wardrobe, but I found no evil white witches there, just delightful Danes who entirely lived up to my expectations.
I remember reading, decades ago, about the various countries of Europe and their people. The story that stuck in my mind was this: The author, who had traveled extensively all over the continent, warned about the prevalence of pickpockets in some places. But he said that if you dropped your wallet on the street in Denmark and came back a year later, not only would it still be there, with all your money and papers intact, but you’d also find a small army of Danes who were trading off shifts, standing guard to protect it from harm. Maybe that’s a little idealistic in this day and age, but I did find the Danish people I encountered to be extremely friendly and helpful.
At CPH (Copenhagen Airport), our landing was a smooth one, and there was no need to go through immigration or customs. I followed the signs (it’s a big airport, and attached to a huge, modern mall that was teeming with people) until I found my way to the public area, where I heard my name called and turned to see my friend Sidsel, behind a “baby” carriage full of beautiful Japanese Chins.
For those readers of this blog who don’t already know, Tom and I own three Japanese Chins and they are the light of my life. The kids are all grown up and have their own lives, and we don’t have grandchildren, but our “chindren” certainly serve as surrogate grandkids. Here’s a photo of my own “babies.”
Sidsel and I met on Facebook through a large group of Chin owners, and I was thrilled to see her pups – especially since I was missing mine badly and worried about how they were doing at home without us (my son and cousin were “pet sitting” for us, but this was the longest period I had ever been away from them at one time). I was happy that I would be able to get a “Chin fix” to hold me over until we got back home.
She had a car, and soon we were on the road to the center of Copenhagen, where we spent the day walking through the cobblestone streets, checking out the shops, watching the people, admiring the architecture, and stopping for bites of some of the delicious pastries along the way.
She showed me all the points of interest: the beautiful churches and palaces, the spires and statues, the canals, the court building and police station, the observatory, and much more. She knew I had been a police officer back “in the day,” so she wanted to take a photo of me with one of the Danish police cars.
We walked for around six hours, and it was a good thing because I think the exercise was the only thing that kept me from freezing. To a gal who was born and raised and lived almost all her life in Texas, 15 degrees F is cold. I had come forewarned and had dressed as warmly as I knew how – having already learned, in Belgium, the value of clothing items such as hats, gloves, ski socks, and thermal underwear that one rarely needs in the Lone Star State. Still, my fingers felt stiff and my ears were numb by the time we finally finished our tour of the city and dropped into a restaurant to have an authentic Danish meal.
Another benefit of the cold weather was that it kept me awake despite my lack of sleep the night before – although when I got back to the hotel in Belgium that night, I collapsed early and slept the sleep of the dead.
The Danish architecture is old world, elegant and inspiring. They don’t make buildings like that anymore. The statue is of one of their former kings.
There were pedestrians and bicycles everywhere, and they took precedence over the motor vehicles. When gas is over 12 kroners per liter (over 8 dollars per gallon), people find alternate means of getting around. Maybe that’s why – despite the rich, fatty food – I saw hardly any overweight Danes.
One of the highlights was seeing the set of four identical palaces, built around a public courtyard, where the different members of Denmark’s royal family live. The palace sentries, like the Queen’s Guard at Buckingham Palace, are intent on their duty and not allowed to interact in even the smallest way with anyone when they’re on duty.
You can go right into the courtyard and wander around. No patdowns or ID checks or any of the security measures we’d expect if we wandered onto the front lawn of the White House. It’s a kinder, gentler world. My friend told me how profoundly the terrorist killing of Theodoor van Gogh (which happened in Amsterdam in 2004) affected them.
Another highlight of the day was the round observatory with its winding spiral cobblestone ramp inside that led up to the top, where you could see a breathtaking view of the entire city. Along the way, we passed a magnificent chapel.
The little restaurant where we had lunch was cozy and intimate, and Sidsel had already made arrangements so we would have a back room, since we had the dogs along with us (what a welcome change from the ubiquitous “no dogs allowed” policy in U.S. restaurants).
The food was nothing that I recognized, but it was delicious. There was a lot of fish, and some wonderful sauces.I came away full, and wishing I knew where to find a Danish restaurant back in Texas – if such a thing exists.
All too soon, it was time for me to get back to the airport for my flight back to Brussels. I hated having to say goodbye to Sidsel and the doggies, but getting to meet them, and spend the day in their wonderful city, was an experience that I’ll hold dear for the rest of my life. I only hope one day she gets to visit the U.S. so I can repay her incredible act of kindness and hospitality.
In my next post, I’ll go into more detail about some of the challenges we faced in trying to get our work done without all of the technology that we’ve become so dependent upon, and how it feels to know you’re in a place where the laws and legal system are very different from what you’re used to and to walk unfamiliar streets, unarmed, when you’re accustomed to having the knowledge that you’re equipped to defend yourself if need be, back home.
Thanks for letting my share this incredible experience with you.