Brussels and Paris

Last week in December 2001. Our flight left Tel Aviv about 5 p.m. on Thursday evening and arrived in Brussels 5 hours later, 9 p.m. local time. Our friends Alon and Hadar Heller picked us up at the airport and brought us to their home in Overjise (the “j” is silent), a suburb of Brussels. Hadar doesn’t work and Alon was off, so they were both free to spend the weekend with us. They were wonderful hosts.

Friday morning the four of us went into the city, to a shopping district where we browsed through shops, and tried to keep out of the rain and cold. End of season sales won’t be starting until January 19th this year because of the switch over to the Euro currency. So there weren’t any bargains to be had.

At noon we headed to the US Embassy where I had arranged to meet my Young Judaean friend, Joe Pomper, who is now the US consul in Brussels (his career has already taken him to Hong Kong, Tel Aviv, London, Washington and Jamaica). The five of us had lunch together at a small cafe restaurant near the embassy. The place was packed and served by a single waiter, but our meal was tasty and served promptly. I especially appreciated the excellent coffee. Conversation was in English and Hebrew, with Hadar and Joe providing translations of the French menu. It was great catching up with Joe, whom I last saw a year ago in Israel when he was here for his nephew’s bar mitzvah.

After lunch Alon, Hadar, Yuval and I drove to a mall in another suburb of Brussels where we bought presents for the kids and boxes of Belgium chocolates for Yuval and me to bring back to share with our coworkers.

Then on to the Atomium, an enormous atom-shaped structure built for an expo in 1958 – Brussels answer to the Eiffel tower, I suppose. We took the elevator up (5 meters a second) to the top globe for a panoramic view of Brussels and environs. Escalators took us down progressively through connecting tubes to lower globes where memorabilia from the 1950s are on display.

The four of us went out to dinner at a Moroccan restaurant where we had couscous and lamb tangine, the house specialty.

Saturday morning I went grocery shopping with Hadar, an experience I enjoyed. Not much different than a Walbaums or a Supersol, except all the labels are in French and Flemish and nothing is kosher. It had snowed overnight, but by morning it had turned to rain and the snow melted away. We had a leisurely breakfast of baguettes, lox and cream cheese.

At Hadar’s suggestion, we decided to go to Brugge, about an hour drive from Brussels. (“When you get back to Israel,” Hadar had said, “everyone will ask if you visited Brugge, so that’s where you have to go if you only have one day to sightsee.”) Brugge dates back to the middle-ages, the facade of the buildings in the have been preserved and the town is filled with old churches and historic landmarks. Canals run through the town and the narrow streets are lined with shops and boutiques, many selling lace and embroidered soft goods, for which the town is famous. Despite the nearly freezing temperature, the town was filled with tourists – more than Hadar or Alon could ever remember seeing there – probably due to the holiday weekend. We drank hot mulled wine and ate all sorts of local treats from outdoor stands. I naturally had a Belgium waffle – thank goodness I didn’t ask for syrup on it – it was sinfully sweet in its plain state! We took a half-hour ride through the town in a horse-drawn carriage whose driver also served as a tour guide.

Dinner that night was at a restaurant in Overjise – everyone but I had shrimp for appetizers and steak for the main meal. I was still feeling the waffle I’d eaten hours earlier, and ordered only a main meal of shrimp (utterly delicious in a garlic sauce).

Sunday it was time to pack up and move on. Around noon Alon and Hadar drove us into the central train station in Brussels, where we got on a train to Paris. It’s one of those trains that travels at something like 160 miles per hour. (My comment: If it had wings it would fly.) Took just over an hour to make the 300 kilometer trip. We sat in a first-class compartment (numbered seating), which Alon insisted would be much more comfortable. Since they don’t serve meals on the weekend, the tickets were just slightly more expensive than the regular class fare.

Fortunately Yuval had bought a street and metro map of Paris before we left Israel, so he was able to study it and figure out how to get to our hotel. Our biggest problem with the metro was making our way through the huge crowds while pulling our luggage. I thought a holiday-weekend afternoon would be quiet in the city – but turns out the opposite was the case. Had I known, I would have urged Yuval to get us into a taxi.

Our hotel, booked by cousin Katia, is located right in the heart of Paris. Our third-floor room overlooked the Seine, across from the Louvre museum and the Tuilleries gardens. The view made up for the size of the room – scarcely 6 feet wide. Seriously! Though tiny, it was clean and comfortable. Aunt Hanna and Uncle Avram from Jerusalem were in the room next door (they’d been vacationing in France for a week and had arrived in Paris the previous evening).

The weather was sunny but bitingly cold. Swathed in hats, gloves and layers of clothes, Yuval and I headed out to take in as much of Paris as possible in what was left of the afternoon. We walked across to the Louvre plaza (a long line waiting to get in) and then down through the Tuilleries and along the Seine. We got onto a metro and trekked over to the Eiffel Tower (several long lines for the elevators). It was already beginning to get dark, and the tower lights came on, making for a lovely view. By now Yuval and I realized that Paris was full of tourists for the New Year’s holiday, and we decided we would NOT wait in any lines.

When we returned to the hotel, we made plans to go out to dinner with Hanna and Avram and their son Shai, his wife Joanna and their 2-year old son Ben (the latter now live in London and were staying at another hotel). We took a chance on a restaurant near the hotel that was able to seat 7 without a reservation. Big mistake. The place obviously caters to British tourists, since the fare was anything but French cuisine (despite the French menu). Service was slow, they were out of several dishes we wanted to order, and incredibly, they told us they had run out of baguettes when we asked for some bread!

Well, we had come to Paris for a bar mitzvah, and that was Monday’s main event. Yuval and I metro’ed to the synagogue in Neuilly, an upscale Parisian neighborhood, where Yuval’s cousin Katia and her son Youri live, as do her mother and sisters. Being a Monday morning (and not shabbat), the only people attending the service were a few of the synagogue regulars and the bar mitzvah guests – about 30 people altogether. Being New Year’s eve, everyone was on vacation that day. There were also about 7 or 8 bar mitzvah-age boys there, and I could not help but notice that they looked and behaved exactly like their American or Israeli counterparts – alternately praying and giggling. Youri read parts of the service and read from the Torah – first chapter of Exodus. I didn’t have a Tanach, but I recognized the text as soon as he began reading his portion (“And a new king arose in Egypt who knew not Joseph…”).

The synagogue is an Orthodox one, with a balcony for the women. But since we were a small congregation, everyone sat in the main hall down in front, with all the women on the left of the aisle and all the men on the right. Youri recited the first aliyah and Avram and Yuval were called up for the second and third. I know that Katia was so grateful we had come for just this moment. The prayer book was completely in Hebrew, and I was able to follow the service although the texts seemed very different from the ones I am used to (even the verses of Adon Olam were different, but at least the melody was the same). The cantor was a haredi fellow who played an electronic keyboard and sang a mixture of chassidic and classic Israeli folk songs throughout the service. The tunes got people clapping and la-la-la-ing and was a way of allowing them to participate in the service.

After the service we socialized over a lovely kiddush spread that included champagne and caviar (or a kosher version thereof). I had met Katia and Youri in Israel, but had never met her mother Lily (the oldest of Gila’s siblings) or her sister Eva. Eva is married to George; they share a law practice and have a 3-year old daughter named Vanina.

We returned to the hotel after the bar mitzvah to change clothes, and then headed back out into the streets of Paris. We walked the streets until we reached the Pompidou Centre, which contains a modern art museum, a library and other cultural centers (it’s the famous industrial style building, with with a steel superstructure, escalator tunnels of clear plastic, and brightly colored elevators and utility pipes exposed on the outside of the building). Out front was a long line of people that was not moving. Having decided we would not wait in any lines, Yuval and I continued our walking tour, following a path suggested on our map.

We stopped at a restaurant to warm up over a cup of coffee, and then continued walking toward the Notre Dame cathedral. Again a line to get in; this one was moving but Yuval did not want to go in – he’d seen enough churches in Brugge. It was already late in the afternoon, so we headed back the few block to our hotel.

In the evening we went to Katia’s apartment where the family gathered for a small bar mitzvah – New Year’s Eve party. The hour of gathering had been moved up to 7 p.m. since Eva and George had to attend another party they were committed to. But at least we were able to spend an hour getting to know them. Apparently Lily’s falling out with some of her siblings many years ago had prevented her daughters from getting to know the family in Israel, and Eva expressed her strong desire to maintain and strengthen the connection now that contact had been made. Shai and Joanna have been in touch with Eva and George for several years now, and have become good friends.

Refreshments included a platter of shellfish (oysters, escargot, shrimp) which Yuval, Shai and I delighted in. (I told Shai it made up for the previous night’s meal, and told Katia I was glad she wasn’t serving kosher food!).

Shai and Joanna also had another New Year’s party to attend (at a friend of Shai’s who lives in Paris). They went by metro, and Hana, Avram, Ben, Yuval and I returned to the hotel in their rental car about 11 p.m. We drove by way of the Arc de Triomphe, but could not go down the Champs Elysees, which was cordoned off for the thousands of revelers in the streets. Since our hotel was in the center of town near to all the action, we had to loop around the streets a long time to find a parking spot near the hotel (someone finally pulled out right in front of the hotel). Just as we parked, Yuval discovered the GPS system in the car, whereupon he had to study it and explain its operation to Avram (who’d been driving the car for a week without knowing about this navigation system). Midnight arrived while we were still in the car, and we could see a few mediocre fireworks going off. Cars started blaring the horns – something that went on for the next several hours.

Tuesday morning it was time to pack up and leave. The streets were deserted at 10 a.m. when we headed for the metro station. The street was littered with liquor bottles and spots of (ahem) vomit.

Trains were running – the metro was free of charge on New Year’s eve and day – but very empty. Yuval and I switched trains several times to get to the airport, and accidentally missed the stop where a line divides and we were supposed to switch trains. (We didn’t understand the announcement in French, and Yuval just assumed our train was heading down the main line, to the airport.) So we had to reverse direction. I was getting anxious about reaching the airport in time, but when we finally got there, I discovered our flight was at 2 p.m. (and not 1 p.m. as Yuval had told me).

We were delighted to discover that we could easily exchange our leftover French francs for the new Euro currency simply by making purchases at the airport shops – as of January 1, all change is made in Euros. So we bought some candy and magazines and came away with freshly minted Euro coins and bills.

The flight home was full, but we had the pleasure of individual movie screens, and Yuval and I got to watch Erin Brokovich, a film we’d both been wanting to see. The film ended just as the plane touched down in Tel Aviv.

We were home by about 8:30 on Tuesday night to find both the kids and the house in good shape. All in all it was a wonderful trip. I felt we did a real mitzvah in attending the bar mitzvah, and thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity we had to spend time with friends and family in far-off locations. The respite from work was most welcome, and I returned to the office on Wednesday with my batteries recharged.

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