Our favourite part about living in Aalst is that we could have a home again. It’s surprising how much we missed all the normal things like cooking for flatmates from ingredients we kept in the house, baking, having a familiar supermarket, bar and running route and spending Sunday afternoons eating banana bread while watching the cyclocross. Other stuff we did while in Aalst was apply for jobs. Everyday we would search for new ads and apply for anything from scientists to hotel cleaners to bike shop mechanics. But that stuff is all a bit boring, so we’ll only write about the things we did.
Lander took us for a guided tour of Brussels, which included visiting the Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and Military History. Most of the museum was an overwhelming collection of weapons, but we spent a long time wandering around the hanger full of early aircraft right through to a small passenger plane. The side by side comparison of planes built before the war and the ones used towards the end of the war showed just how fast technology developed. We walked through all the old buildings and ended up in the underground bar Delirium with a beer list of more than 2000 beers. We generally get Lander to chose for us as the menus here are often a little overwhelming.
James’ cousin Sophie, who we caught up with in Vietnam, is now living in Germany working as an Au Pair. As it was her holiday she was traveling with her boyfriend Yasser and they came to stay for a few nights. Unfortunately it was at the time that Bryony had a reasonably full on interview in Utrecht, so she couldn’t explore with them, but James spent a couple of days exploring Ghent and Brussels again. It was great to catch up, and we definitely noticed our English speed up and become less well pronounced with a third Kiwi in the mix (on our own we seem to have adapted to slower speeds to be a bit politer to all the people we speak with who have English as their second or third language or who haven’t encountered a kiwi accent before).
One Sunday we took an early train to the ‘mountains’ of Belgium – the Ardennes. It was a clear blue day, but there had been a big snow fall and a week of frost so the whole area was blanketed in deep, clean snow. It was nothing like mountains in New Zealand, which are usually steeper, or at least the parts where there is snow are above the tree line. Here we walked through forests buried in snow past slushy frozen creeks.
After hiking through the snow in a big loop for about 15km we found ourselves back at the restaurant and had a beer and a late lunch before climbing to the highest point of Belgium. Because the mountains are so flat they’ve build a small staircase to reach 700m. They were treacherous with the ice forming a big slope, so most of the way up we pulled with our arms, but we made it and can now claim to have visited the highest point of two different countries!
Everyone else in Belgium seemed to want to visit the Ardennes on the same weekend and the huge traffic jam meant that we had to wait 30 minutes in the growing dark with frozen feet until the bus pulled up. It was jam packed and we didn’t even stop at the next bus stop to pick up another 10 people waiting there. Like nearly everyone else on the bus we missed the train to Brussels, so trooped into a pub and had a drink while we waited for the next one. We were famished by the time we got home, but the good thing about having a flatmate is that Lander could message Jeroen and make sure we had hot pizza waiting for us when we got home.
Katrien, a friend of Landers who works in entomology at the natural history museum offered us a tour of the museum and collection. Her colleague gave us a fascinating, personalised tour and even hunted out the kiwi skeleton for us. Other highlights include the whales penis, caramalised rhinoseraus foetus (the people who discovered it didn’t have preserving fluids so instead boiled it in sugar) and the dinosaurs. Another colleague showed us through the huge lepidoptera collection, which includes the largest collection of African butterfly species in the world.
Lander has been really generous in introducing us to all his friends and inviting us along to events, even when it means they have to speak more English than they normally would. With Lander, Eric, Anthe and Nathan we attended the Brugges beer festival. There was an enormous range of Belgian beers, which are notorious for being very high in alcohol (up to and beyond 11%) – the comparison between the before and after photos should provide an indication of how good our beer judging skills were by the end of it. It was a great day though, and we came away with two beer glasses for when we have a home and a piece of genuine Flanders cobblestone as a souvenir.
James made some friends at the bike shop, the Fiesterij, and spent a day there building himself a new fixie. The bike shop is in the same building as a cool cafe and we visited that often enough that James became known as the New Zealander in Aalst. It’s not a tiny city, but it doesn’t have any huge tourist attractions, and we were definitely a novelty.
We are super excited that Bryony has found a job in Utrecht, but a little sad to be leaving behind Aalst. We keep reminding ourselves sometimes how unlikely, but lucky, it is that we met Lander 3 years ago in New Zealand and ended up back together in Belgium. We already have plans to return for Carnival and the Tour of Flanders as well as to go hiking together somewhere in Scandinavia over the summer.