One year ago we were stuck in Argentina, one year ago our flight was canceled 9 times, and one year ago we were repatriated through an Air France flight, long after the airport of EZE was closed. One year.
One year ago, a bit more, was the last time I hugged someone else then my husband and kids. Lupe, Gustavo, Patricia, Gabriel,…to name but a few. More than once. And very close. Do people in Argentina still hug? Do they still share mate? I wouldn’t know, because…
One year ago was the last time we flew an airplane. Without face mask. We knew we probably should have, but they were not available, not in Argentina, not in Belgium.
All the things that did and didn’t happen in that one year, the things we did and didn’t do, it is too much to count. Things that were unthinkable then, are normal now. And what we took for granted then, makes us crave for and embrace now.
We are supposed to see light at the end of the tunnel, or so they say. I don’t know.
We are supposed to be able to travel again soon. But where to? While we are going towards summer and opening up, the southern hemisphere is going towards winter and closing down the borders again. While the north is going to take a short summer break, the south will go through yet another storm. Vaccination doesn’t catch up with the virus, not in Europe and not in Argentina.
But well, what’s another year.
What’s another year, Argentina…. Wait for me. I’m coming as soon as it is possible. With or without hugging, with or without sharing mate.
Nowadays, all you hear is you can’t do this, you can’t do that. This closes, that is forbidden. Everyone is just so negative.
But why always focus on the things you can’t do? Why not have a look at the million things we are still allowed to do? At least today :-)?
While zipping our Sunday morning coffee we discuss the possibilities. The weather forecast is horrid, but then who still believes that app on his phone? We were supposed to wake up with ‘rain tapping on your windows’, we have been up for a while, but we still haven’t seen or heard a drop.
We decide on going for a walk outside and chose the Far West as destination ; not so long ago I received a tip from a friend and I figure it’s time to explore it.
The Far West isn’t exactly an official region, it’s how I call it, because it’s about as far west as you can possibly go in this small country, and getting there takes us over an hour (100km).
We put on our waterproof walking shoes, take our raincoat -just in case-, a snack, pay a last visit to the bathroom (all restaurants and bars are closed), and we are ready to drive to Westouter, Heuvelland (‘Hill-land’).
The road is exceptionally quiet. It’s still early, the sky is gray, rain is predicted. Belgians rather stay at home.
When we arrive, church service has just started in the small town of Westouter. The church bells ring, the church door is open, the warm welcoming lights are on. The parking lot is full. (With 8 cars or so). Not a soul outside.
We grab our facemask, we leave our wallet (nothing’s open anyway) and we start to walk.
It’s all nature. Trails through or alongside fields, muddy tracks next to tiny rivers or streams, tracks through forests. A few paved walking paths, several wooden paths. It’s not for nothing that the area is called Heuvelland (hilly land), we walk up, we walk down again. It’s magnificent. It’s as if we are in another world. A people-free world.
While walking on a narrow muddy path, a guy on his mountainbike approaches fast. He cheerfully calls ‘bonjour’ ant tells us how many more muddy men are coming. We wait patiently, pushing ourselves just off the track, try not to get splashed with mud. One after the other passes by, yelling bonjour while focussing on the muddy track . One laughing ‘who has ordered all this mud?!’. They all speak French. They are like a bomb of positive energy and cheerfulness passing buy. They make us smile.
It seems like the mountain bikers have woken up. It seems we are in mountain bike land, even though there are signs everywhere that bikes are forbidden on some of these tracks. Every now and then we need to jump aside. We don’t mind.
The mud is everywhere, sometimes deep, sometimes slippery. I am like a little child. I like mud. But I walk carefully, as I don’t want to touch the mud with any other part of my body than my already muddy feet.
The trail continues. We pass by a small town called Zwartberg, Mont Noir, that seems alive. Maybe we can get a take away coffee. We put on our masks and make a detour.
Where are we? Is this Belgium or is this France? We look at the cars in the (only and) main street but can’t figure it out. To our surprise we see a bar open. It must be France. But the waiters speak the typical West Flemish accent. They explain that this side if the street is France (bars open), across the street is Belgium (bars closed). And we are lucky. We can pay with our phone.
The coffee tastes like heaven and gives us energy enough to continue our walk through the mud.
The sun comes out, and with that also the people. Families with kids, couples,… both French and flemish. The French all interrupt the conversation they are in to say ‘bonjour’ to us, some Flemish say ‘bonjour’, probably assuming we are nice French people. But most Flemish don’t say a thing, or give us a short answer when we address them. It’s so easy to see what nationality one is. It’s easy to see who is the friendliest.
13km later we are back at the car. We try to kick the mud off our boots, in order to keep the car relatively clean. We fail. We take the mud home while discussing the difference between the French and the Belgians. It never quite struck us before.
The Belgians might be the bravest, the French are, undoubtedly, the nicest.
Trail ‘stiltewandeling’ (walk of silence) in Westouter You can also find the trail on routeyou (and probably other apps). Autumn colours were only just starting, so hurry up! Put on your hiking boots and go for that walk!
In the beginning, when this all started, some people said that wearing a face mask will become like wearing a seatbelt was decades ago : after a while it will become so normal that nobody talks about it anymore and everybody just wears it.
It couldn’t be more true! Even though I occasionally still forget putting it on, when I stand up from my seat in a restaurant for example, or when I leave a parking lot… but I easily stand corrected when I see ‘the others’ with masks staring at me.
So we grab our mask and are off to Ghent to see a classical music concert by Collegium Vocale. It’s my first concert in more than half a year. Not because there weren’t any, but more because I am always too late in buying tickets, and even this time it’s thanks to my friend that I am here : she always manages to get tickets everywhere.
We wait in line in front of the church, in little groups of 2 or 4, under an umbrella. After almost half a year of dry weather, the gods have decided to finally give us some rain. Nobody dares to complain. Rain was desperately needed and umbrellas do a good job.
The seats are numbered but we are brought inside by stewards on a first come first sit basis. Filling up the 2×2 chairs, with a safe 1m space between you and the next 2 chairs.
Philippe Herreweghe, the conductor, gives us some explanation of what is expected. We should read the lyrics on the page provided on our chair, next to the little bottle of disinfectant gel. Otherwise the concert will be ‘just a series of beautiful sounds’, he says.
The music starts. My barok German is a bit rusty, so I grab my phone and pass the text through google translate. Sin, Satan, ‘I disgust to live more so take me’, and other heavy and depressing words. So I close my eyes and shut of my brain, and let the ‘just great sounds’ enter my soul.
Whenever I hear Alex Potter sing, he gives me the shivers. With his divine voice he sounds as if he descended from heaven, so I’d rather forget he is now singing about hell. Sitting there in our 2×2 chairs, with face masks on, really feels like heaven and for now, sins do not bother me at all.
When it ends, after the applause dies down, we are again escorted outside into the rain, this time on a last come first leave basis.
We walk to a restaurant where we take a seat outside, after first moving the table and chairs around so we all sit under the sunroof that now protects us from the rain. The gas heaters keep us warm.
The food is delicious, as well as the wine and the beer, and we have a fun chat with our friends. Discussing all kinds of topics except corona, the new government ; even Trump isn’t mentioned! And then one says : ”Don’t you agree that everything feels pretty normal?”.
After just a short moment of silence, we all agree, he is right. However bad the news might be, no matter how much (some) people complain, no matter the economy and the numbers of infected, however gloomy some people are : life does feel pretty much like normal.
On this good note, without giving each other a goodbye hug, with our face masks on, we walk back to the car and drive home. We are ready for yet another normal weekend.
I have traveled the world and the 7 seas, but I don’t know my own country : I don’t know my own capital city. How bad is that?
Pretty bad I would say! I sometimes go there for a particular shop (the only Apple store in the country to name just one), to a particular restaurant or to meet up within local friends -who then guide us to their favourite restaurants. But that’s about it.
I am pretty embarrassed to admit this, I must say!
But thanks to Covid-19, Europe (and the world) changes into colour zones. Orange zones (test and quarantine advised), red zones (forbidden to go), and a rare amount of green zones (free travel), ánd the colour of a zone can easily switch from orange to red, which means you have to get tested and go into quarantine when you get back. So traveling becomes complicated. One has to be creative if he wants to get away.
So here we are, being creative! We’re spending the weekend in Ste Catherine neighbourhood in our own capital city of Brussels. Less than an hour drive from my home. The car in the parking lot ; we have only our feet to move around town this weekend. We now behave like tourists in our own country. How cool is that?
Ste Catherine is a vibrant part of the city, the middle of the historical center, inside the ‘pentagon’ (inner city) of Brussels. Restaurants, bars, and terraces. Nicely crowded without being overwhelming (in these COVID times), people wear facemasks everywhere, as it is mandatory. But alive nevertheless, alive and kicking.
But not so much alive early in the morning. Before the stores open, Brussels is ours, and ours alone. We walk over the Grand Place, through the Galleries de Saint Hubert as is if we are the only people on the planet. Have a coffee here and there, only accompanied by some locals.
Bit by bit the city comes to life, and before we know it, it’s vibrant again. The terraces fill up. Moms with little kids, older couples getting together. No, or just a few tourists.
The virus is flaring up again, in the whole of Europe, in Belgium, but particularly in Brussels, so I am guessing people stay away.
Still, the area is multinational and multicultural. This is the capital of Europe anyway. I just love it! Different languages, different types of people, many different styles of clothing and hair do’s.
We have lunch at De Noordzee, a fast-food-like fish restaurant, the best place in town, or so we are told. Order at ‘the bar’, and wait at your high table until your name is called or rather shouted, like fish sellers do. It is delicious. The fish is served in a carton bowl. The whole place smells like authenticity.
I think I am liking Brussels, a lot. It is not Buenos Aires, it is not Paris or New York. It is small and walkable, but that is good in these Covid times.
Lockdown seems eternal. We are allowed to go out for some particular reasons, but none of it is much fun. Shopping in crowded cities with masks on, having to wait in line, being attentive not to come too close to others, wiping your hands with gel so often the skin bursts. That’s not really relaxing nor fun.
Whatever we want to do we need to think ‘is that allowed?’. The rules are so complicated and there are so many exceptions and discussions that one would doubt just about anything. Can we take the bike in the car to drop us off somewhere far off (within Belgium, of course)? Can we go for a walk in the city when the stores are closed? Can we go for a ride with no destination without leaving the car? Etc. How on earth do you fill up your Sunday with something fun??
But then we found something!
While zipping our coffee this morning we thought that maybe a visit to the museum (=allowed) might be a fun option. We need to make an online reservation and we imagine them all fully booked. But no! Just one look on the website showed us that we are not too late! The first museum I checked still had loads of availability, and a couple of clicks later we have the entry ticket on our phones. We’re off to Antwerp.
The roads are fuller then before, but still quite empty. So empty you can’t even rely on WAZE anymore. It’s a dark gloomy day, ideal for a visit to the museum.
We parked in front of the FOMU, where the exhibition of Stephan Vanfleteren has been extended, due to Corona. We have seen the exhibition already, last year. It was so popular that we could practically walk on the heads. Too crowded to read the names and info on the little tags next to the photographs. Those were the pre-corona days where tons of people could be packed in 1 room. Thinking about it now already makes me feel dizzy.
Now it was more than perfect. It was us, and maybe 4 or 6 other people, so we had all the time in the world to look at the work of one of the best Belgian photographers ever, time to enjoy, to reflect, to read, to think.
A museum visit we combined with a walk on the shores of the river, (probably not allowed), where in normal circumstances, the cold wind would have chased us into a bar to have a hot chocolate or a coffee. But not today. The new normal send us back to our car to drive home and have our drink there.
But still, it was great. It was a welcome diversion of what seems to be our new life -for now-. Enjoy our master! This a perfect to do tip!
If you haven’t seen the exhibition yet, you still have time, but now the time is perfect! Buy your tickets here; Extended until September 13. Waalse Kaai 47 in Antwerpen.
What happens when all of a sudden you can no longer do what you are used to, what you are expected to, what you have to? Especially when this ‘all of a sudden’ really didn’t give you time to adapt or prepare!
That’s exactly how it went in Argentina. Now you were in one place and the next you had 4 hours get ready before the country went into total (total!) lockdown.
In Belgium things didn’t move this fast, thanks to the indecisiveness of our government, and the rules aren’t that strict, but still, in just a few days time many, not all, but a vast majority of people, was either working from home or put on technical unemployment, and all of sudden you find yourself at home, day in, day out, together with your closest family.
Day in, day out.
After 2 weeks in complete boredom in Argentina, where we were stuck in the house and couldn’t go out for walks nor to the food stores, where internet through our phones was so bad that it didn’t even allow video calls, where we couldn’t buy anything online to keep us busy, with no TV and no movies we could download, Belgium lock down seemed a treat to us. There is no place like home, where your family is, where your computer is, where work is, where you can find a zillion things to do. Where even spring cleaning seemed like fun!
Even though we work form home, there is still a lot of time to enjoy the situation, as nobody is stuck in traffic, no appointments, no meetings where we must go to. Everything is done from our home.
Time to eat all together -just the family of course-, to go for a walk in streets where for a change cars have been replaced by pedestrians and bikers -all at a safe distance-. There is no longer a rush hour, nobody rushes as even a visit to the supermarket takes time, and there is nothing to do at home anyway. No deadlines to be reached. The speed button of the whole world has been turned down. Life has become slow. Slower than during holidays even, where we want to see things, visit things, do things.
It’s time to reflect. Were we living in the right way? Was that speed necessary? Were these never ending long to do lists really needed? It’s now time to make a different to do list, of fun things that we never thought of because we didn’t have the time anyway. No time to make the list, no time to think of what we would really want to do, and not time to do those things either. Things for now, and for when life goes back to normal.
But, do we want life to become normal again? Do we want to go back to what it was?
It’s as if the reset button has been pushed, and we have to fill in the void. It’s challenging but at the same time it’s fun.
This is totally and utterly surreal. When we left our country less than 1 month ago on this photographic trip to Buenos Aires, the world was still how we knew it, the world I grew up in. There had been many changes over the years, but all those changes came slowly and we chose to be part of it (or not). The internet, the cell phone, the smart phone, video calls…. They came slow, and now we can’t imagine how our life was before these inventions.
In just a few weeks time that world has changed. In just a few days time, Argentina went from ‘corona is far away’ to a total lock down, with rules much stricter than even in Italy, where they count up to 1000 dead a day. In Argentina they had (yesterday) a total of 17 dead, over just less than a month.
We realised even more that the world has changed when we got into the airport, after being stopped and checked by the police several times. An airport that was dead and closed. The international airport of Buenos Aires isn’t very big -the national airport is a lot bigger-, and the 500 people of our plane didn’t give the impression it was totally empty, as everyone was keeping a distance. But the announcements before boarding, with detailed instructions on how to behave, the demanding tone of the voice, and especially the people complying without complaining, was surreal.
We got on a ‘special plane’, this was a repatriation plane, and the crew volunteered to pick us up. They got a full round of applause even before we took off! The food was limited, and everything was brought in one round. Aperitif, food and coffee, just to limit the contact between crew and passengers. We were not allowed to move around the plane except when necessary.
Even Paris seemed asleep. Our plane was the only one in that terminal. There were only French and other Europeans in the plane so the pasport controls were fast and we were out of the airport in no time. Nicely keeping the 1,5m distance, as voices through the speakers kept on repeating.
Getting to Belgium was another problem to tackle, as the French-Belgian borders are closed, and to move around in France you need special documents, just like in Argentina. There are hardly any trains riding. Our TGV was canceled.
We were lucky to have our son pick us up : family members are allowed to pick each other up. Armed with a whole file, including copies of our passports, our flight tickets, proof of residence, proof of relationship, he set off to Paris.
But just we had read on the embassy website, the police is tolerant for Belgians picking up relatives in Charles de Gaulle airport, and our pick up seemed a piece of cake. Only the Belgian police at the border wanted to know where we came from and wanted to see proof of relationship.
The Belgian roads (in contrast to the French and Argentine) are still rather busy, at least during the day, nevertheless the trip home was fast.
Finally home we have a zillion things to do. What a difference to the complete boredom in Argentina! We are now in quarantine, the 3 of us ; for 2 weeks we are dependent on the goodwill of my sister in law and my nephew to do the shopping. We will have to make up for that later, once life turns back to normal.
When will that be? Will the old normal ever come back? What will the new normal look like? Or is this new normal? We will just have to wait and see about that!
We have a flight, so we should be relieved. We are! Even though we won’t fully believe it until we’re actually in the plane. We are more than experienced with flight cancelations.
We wake up 2 hours after the usual 5am (time Air France Belgium opens and we could rebook a canceled flight), and have 3 coffees. (Until now our coffee was rationed to 1 a day, as we only have 30-ish Nespresso capsules and can’t get to any extra and the only alternative is Nescafé powder). Being able to drink a good cup of joe (and another one) (and another one) seems like a gift from heaven.
The embassy sends us message that AF has organized yet another flight, now departing on the 31st. I have the instant reflection to book, in case our flight gets canceled. Or, as a friend said, to make sure my shadow can go too. It’s ridiculous, I know. I don’t know what we will do once we are back in belgium : shall we keep on calling AF, out of addiction? Just to listen to the melody they play while waiting? Inventing new trips that we will never take? It’s increadable how fast a person gets conditioned to do something.
I pack and repack my suitcase. I check in. I check the flight. All’s still good.
Finally it’s time to set off. We consider ourselves experienced ‘drivers-to-the-airports-during-total-lock-down’, but that doesn’t mean we are not nervous. The lock down is getting more strict every day, which is obvious as there are even less cars than last time, and we are dependent on the behavior of the cops at the check points.
The airport is closed. Like last time. The French ambassador is organizing things. Like last time. There is a huge line outside, everyone staying at 1,5m from the one in front of him, and one by one we can slowly go inside the airport. Everyone is very chill and everything goes very slow. Social distancing seems to make people calm. Nobody pushes.
But all seems normal. The plane is here (we see it), our bags are checked in. So I guess it’s time to become euphoric. It’s time to drink a glass of wine. Or champagne, whatever! As long as it has alcohol!! Let’s celebrate that we are going home!
….but all the shops and restaurants are closed too, so we can not buy a drink nor food.
We will have to postpone our celebrational drink until after take off. But who minds waiting in times like this… it will taste all the better!
PS thanks to everyone for rooting for us! For all your messages and support!
I never expected to get to part 9, but here we are, still stuck in Argentina.
We now live out of our suitcase. If they call us, the embassy, we only need to put our pijamas in the suitcase, lock the house and go. We now shower before we have our coffee, we don’t leave the dishes for later, we swipe the floor immediately after a meal, we clean the bathroom after each use. You never know when they call.
We could paint the house -we have all the material- but we daren’t. What if they call when we are in the middle of a wall? We need to be ready to jump into the car and drive to the airport in no time.
But we do need to eat. My husband ventures into town to get some food from the fiambreria, the butcher and the bakery. The food from the local almacén is just horrible, with half rotten tomatoes, plastic tasting cheese, and rubber sandwiches. We didn’t even dare and order meat there.
He sets off. He got stopped at the edge of town where he said his usual opening phrase ‘soy belga’, but this time it didn’t work. They asked for his passport, checked the entry date (check!), but said that as a foreigner he has to stay in his house (quarantaine) and can’t go out, not even to buy food or go the pharmacy. He has to order at the local almacén, they say. When he told him he must go the bank, they decided to call the police….
The police then escorted him to the bank, and then back home, as if he were a criminal, or more like a celebraty. No way he could do something else. No butcher and no fiambreria. And apparently he was lucky his car wasn’t confiscated.
The thought of having to eat the junk from the almacén for a couple of weeks isn’t a pleasant one. Especially knowing that there are such great delicacies for sale close by in the center, but out of reach because we are foreigners! Not being able to chose your own fruit and vegetables. I know, we are too spoiled, but a Belgian and his food!!??
But help is close by. Literally! We have some great new neighbors, who also prefer the food from town and don’t mind helping us out and who, being Argentines, can leave their house to go shopping! They are not afraid of us and from the beginning we have been in close contact. They too are stuck here, their main house being in Capital.
So now that we have food, I can dedicate myself completely to boredom. And bored to death I am. Hardly any internet, we can’t download movies, no video talks. Nothing we can do around the house. Bored.
But then I like to leave the excitement for last.
All of a sudden, out of the blue, I receive an email from the embassy stating that we can book a flight on the French repatriation flight of Sunday. In just a second I kick boredom off and I go into total stress, opening laptop, trying to connect to the internet, going to AF website… trying to book online while my husband calls AF. It takes ages. Really ages. The website constantly blocks, gives errors., time and time again, but on the phone HB had more succes.
A couple of hours later it is official. We leave on Sunday with a special repatriation flight of AF. So until further notice, this is the last part of life as a pariah. These are the last few days as a pariah, more then ready to go into quarantine in Belgium…. I can’t wait to get to work, I have loads of things to do, catch up. I can’t wait to be locked up in my office. Knowing my family is close by.
Thanks to you all for your support and your messages!!
Ps. According to the ambassador it’s not correct that foreigners have to stay in their house. He is checking and doing the necessary to solve that.
We leave the airport and look for a taxi. There are none. The airport is closed. We go the other terminal where there is a ‘cascos blancos’ team (whatever that is) who shout as the see us, that my husband and I need keep a distance between us of 1,5 meter. I jokingly tell them we sleep together so there is not much use to that. They don’t think it’s funny.
They also tell us we must go 2 weeks into quarantine as we have left our house. We go into discussion, tell them we don’t come from abroad but have just spend some time in the airport. She gets mad and says we will be detained when we don’t comply. Meanwhile a transfer was offered to us which we accepted, not that we had much choice, and get out of there as fast as we can.
We got into the car. We decided to get back to our weekend house after a phone call with the embassy (they had called me after they heard of our adventures and troubles). They tell us that first 2 weeks probably nothing will happen so we are best there. It feels good to finally hear that they are there and trying to work things out. It feels like there is (again) some light at the end of the tunnel.
But first we had to go back to the appartement where we had left our rental car key. The car was parked in the street. The taxi driver had some special permission and we were asked nothing at the check points. We picked up the key and loaded our stuff straight in the car and got out of the city. Waze made us evade the check points, which was necessary as our permission to be on the road (canceled flight) could not have led us into the city center. Had we been caught it could have resulted in confiscating the car and having us detained.
I find this hard, the only law I regularly break is speeding on the highway, so the probability to be detained and our car confiscated because we got to our rental car in order to get to our house is freaking me out. It sounds like over the top, but I know they must do something to keep the stubborn argentines at home. They have to contain this virus.
We get to our first and only checkpoint on the highway. We start with our usual sentence ‘somos Belgas’, we are Belgians. The guy immediately shouts to the others that we are foreigners. We have to pull over and they first check our passport to see if have to be in quarantine. Check! Then the letter of the embassy saying we can go to the airport. Check! Then we say the flight is canceled and before I can show the picture he says yes, the airport is closed! He smiles and adds that we are good to go, and that Belgium isn’t one of the affected countries anyway! We gladly say yes! and move on.
We arrived safely at the house, and will be living out of our suitcase, ready to drive to the airport once we are called. When we are called. If we are called.