France and Belgium With a New Set of Eyes
When I was twelve years old, I left the United States for the first time (well besides Canada) for a trip to my cousins wedding in France. I can’t recall the trip in much detail and tragically the pictures were lost in a flood a few years ago. Luckily, at the end of August, projects in Lyon and Brussels allowed me to revisit the region and gave me the chance to see France and Belgium with a new set of eyes. Not only because I would be 20 years removed from my initial visit, but this time Jennilou and Esmei were tagging along.
My project in Lyon was our first stop. Again, most of my time was consumed preparing and attending the conference, but with Jennilou able to spend the day discovering the city, she had our two evening strolls planned without a squandered step. Known as the “the gastronomic capital of the world,” Lyon’s setting at the meeting of the Rhône and Saône rivers made it a beautiful place to spend a summer evening relaxing at an outdoor café. By the time we headed north I began feeling a hint of nostalgia, as the longer we stayed, the more familiar the food, smells, and overall surroundings seemed.
Needing to be in Brussels by Monday morning, we rented a car Friday and journeyed north to Paris for the weekend. However, since Esmei and I get antsy after a few hours in the car, we decided to make a couple stops in route. Our first stop was Château de Chambord, the hunting lodge for Francis I and the largest château in the Loire Valley (Also, and probably better known as the inspiration for the Beast’s castle in the 1991 animated Disney film Beauty and the Beast). With a Leonardo da Vinci design, 1,800 workers, and a twenty-eight year schedule the pad was impressive to say the least.
Wishing we had more time to spend at the castle, but excited to make one more stop before Paris, we pushed north to the Chartres Cathedral, where between 1194 and 1260, three hundred craftsmen were able to create one of the finest examples of architecture in the world. The facades and structure were worth the trip, but experiencing the original stained glass windows from the interior was incredible.
Exhausted we rolled into the “City of Lights” with a sleeping baby and ready to hit the hay before our big day in Paris. In the morning, we began our day in the true heart of the city with Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris. Next we headed west to the Musée du Louvre and home of da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. At twelve years old, it’s understandable that I couldn’t fully appreciate the magnitude of what I was experiencing all those years ago, but being the first time I have had the chance to revisit a foreign place, I began to understand the old adage about the real voyage of discovery consisting not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes. If anything doing a trip like this reminded of the person I once was and allowed me to better judge the person I have become. In short a boy with an attention problem who dreaded setting foot in a museum, to someone that would just assume spend the day staring at old buildings.
Next on the agenda was a stroll up the Champs Elysees to the Arc de Triomphe. Luckily for me nothing caught Jennilou’s eye as I charged along. The coolest part of the day was our walk to the Eiffel Tower. Even before it came into sight, I remember letting Jennilou know that it was just around the corner to a large set of steps overlooking the tower. Until that moment, I had forgotten sitting on those very steps with my parents one evening when I was twelve years old.
With a just a half day at our disposal before needing to head north to Belgium, we were up early for the train to the Palace of Versailles. Roving the grounds and wandering the halls made it easy to understand how the chateau came to symbolize a system of absolute monarchy. How can you blame the citizens for inciting a Revolution, when Louis XIV could fund a war by sending his silver chamber pots to mint?
Keen at finally seeing the NATO Headquarters project in person, we took the Sunday evening train to Brussels and settled into our hotel for my upcoming week of work. Between Monday and Friday I was tied up with the incredible 245,000 square meters of office space set on a 41-hectare campus. Designed to symbolize eight fingers in a clasp of unity, the building would be the future home of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s 28 member countries and 19 partner nations.
Again, Jennilou explored the city by day and took me to the highlights at night. With our limited time together, we made the most of it by hitting a local restaurant each night mixing in evening strolls to the Grand Place, Manneken Pis, St. Michael and St. Gudula Cathedral, and the Royal Palace of Brussels.
The highlight of our trip was getting to see an old friend on our last evening. Finishing up work in the morning, we took the afternoon train to Bruges, where we met up with our former Beijing hostel roommate Bert Vermeesch. It turns out Bert was born and raised in Bruges and operates a fledgling tour guide service. Reconnecting with our friend as we strolled through town listening to his quirky local perspective to the Belfry of Bruges, Church of Our Lady Bruges, Market Place reminded us how funny and weird life can really be. We lose touch with a lot of people due to geographical reasons, but that’s not an acceptable reason to lose a good friend. Great people like Bert are hard to come by.
It turns out nostalgia is a beautiful feeling. Reconnecting with a childhood place or a long lost friend reminds us of the way things once were, the happiness that we experienced growing up, and all the wonder. If anything, I would do it again in a heartbeat just for the sake of the smile it brought to my face watching Bert change that diaper.