Friday: Pirateneiland (www.pirateneiland.info) play park (see last post). An easy ride on Bus 1 down to the docks that Napoleon developed long ago. This old warehouse district is being gentrified from sleazy strip clubs to upscale apartments and family-friendly entertainment, and we could see the Flemish National Ballet headquarters a bit further down.
Saturday: Aquatopia (www.aquatopia.be is a GREAT website for kids) at the Astrid Park Hotel, Tram stop Astrid on the underground. What a fantastic place! This is by far one of the best places to take kids that I've ever been to. The attention to detail in this giant aquarium complex blows the mind. As someone who appreciates the theatrical skill needed to create an environment that truly transports visitors out of their everyday experience, I was in extra awe. Aquatopia is a three-story "zoo" specializing in fish and other aquatic species like turtles, frogs, coral, anemones, octopi, and also a few swamp-dwelling reptiles (snakes and iguanas).
Admission was quite reasonable. MeiMei was free because she's not 4 years old yet. The director of the JMU program gave us a coupon from the McDonalds on DeKeyserlei to get JieJie in free, so it was just 12,45 euro for me. What a bargain! We spent two hours in there and could've stayed longer. In each different environment, the lights, sound, surroundings, and even the temperature taught us something about different aquatic biomes. Our favorite was definitely the mangrove swamp because, in order to demonstrate how fish move among a mangrove tree's roots, we got to crawl (yes, me too, on my hands and knees) through kid-size tunnels under the fish tanks and climb over giant "roots" as though we were little fish. The girls also enjoyed the coral reef exhibit and the shark tunnel, where sharks and rays swim right over your head. We'll definitely go back there.
After our visit to Aquatopia, we passed through the stone lions that mark the entrance to the heart of Chinatown, Van Wesenbekestraat, looking for a place to eat lunch. We chose the City Palace Restaurant. It was a promising sign that I was the only person of European descent in the place. I also noticed that many of the tables were round with lazy susans in the middle for sharing dishes, another good sign. Our waiter asked where JieJie and MeiMei were born, and I answered Chongqing. As usually happens, we heard a flurry of conversation near the kitchen, with the word "Chongqing" sprinkled in, and then several other waiters and kitchen staff showed up to bring various items to our table and have a look at the girls. MeiMei smiled at them and said and said "uno, dos, tres, cuatro, cinco!" and big sister JieJie scolded "say Ni Hao!" What a world.
The waiter asked where we were all from and when we said the United States, he mentioned things about New York's Chinatown. Had he been there? I asked. No, just heard about it from friends, but he had worked in London's Chinatown before coming to Antwerp. So he knows at the very least four languages, because I heard him speak Dutch, Mandarin, and Cantonese in addition to English, and he likely knows another dialect of Chinese based on our (granted, limited) experience.
I wasn't sure what to order, since the menu was in Chinese, Dutch and French, so we asked them to bring a variety of dim sum and really enjoyed the variety of dumplings and meatballs and noodles. The hot and sour soup was fantastic.
At one point, MeiMei leaned back too far in her chair and fell over backwards. She was startled and started to cry, and immediately several people rushed over with candy for her (poor JieJie is getting tired of watching her clumsy little sister get all these sympathy treats when she herself gets nothing for just doing as she's supposed to do). I was scolded for my negligence in letting her sit wrongly in the chair (see the China entries--this is par for the course and I take it as par for the course).
After lunch we stopped in a Chinese supermarket. I want to try to find some New Year cake to make--Year of the Fire Pig starts on the 17th! I didn't find it Saturday, but the girls found some marshmallow candy so we got that. I swear our eating habits have gone down the tubes...but when we get back to Virginia we can just say "we only eat chocolate every day in Belgium, sorry girlies!" ;)
We caught the tram home, had our quiet time, and then walked to the Super GB to get lunch boxes. Tuesday afternoon we are going to give it a try (lunch and staying til 3:30). We'll see how it goes.
John got home about 7pm having had a great day in Brussels with the JMU students. We will definitely go back as a family later this month, but he felt we'd made the right decision to stay behind.
Today we slept in til 8:30 (believe me, this is LATE for us) and after breakfast decided to try the Antwerp Zoo (www.zooantwerpen.be), which is a block from Aquatopia, right next to the Central Station. It's a beautiful, park-like zoo, a welcome green space in a city that feels very paved and sooty this time of year...I have to remind myself that there are bare trees all around that, when they bloom, will transform the city. For now, though, most greenery is hidden away in private courtyards. From a pedestrian's point of view, it's all roads and buildings, very little sign of nature, so the zoo's green lawns and hedges were food for the soul.
The zoo is really expensive though! With the exchange rate, it was about $60 for the four of us to get in, and we wish we'd used our money toward an annual pass--it would have paid for itself after two more visits. Since the zoo is only a ten-minute walk from the apartment (like most things, actually), I could see going there just to give the girls a place to run and play on a nice afternoon. Ah well, live and learn, eh?
The zoo has an impressive group of birds from around the world, including condors, parrots, and these gorgeous owls that live in the northern parts of North America and Asia. For each species of bird and animal, the name plate also featured a map showing the region of the world where the animal's natural habitat is found. JieJie is a real map lover (she takes after John) so she loved calling out the names of the continents as we looked at each animal.
We left the zoo just after lunch time as it was turning chillier and the girls were hungry. Thank goodness for The Stroller--they'd have never made the walk home after all that fun at the zoo. This afternoon, we thought we'd try a trip to a Carrefour, which is like a French Wal-Mart. The only other Carrefour I'd been to was in China, actually. Our guide took us to buy baby supplies at a Carrefour in Chongqing the day we adopted MeiMei. (Am I the only person who thinks all these international overlaps are funny? At lunch in Chinatown there were so many interconnections I thought the universe might turn in on itself and create a black hole right there at City Palace). We hopped on the 3 tram and rode it to the end of the line in Merksem. It's neat to see the beginning of the 'burbs of Antwerp.
As with many things in this area, Carrefour was closed today (Sunday) so we let the girls play at the indoor playground of a Quick fast food restaurant (so like McDonald's you truly can't tell the difference, looks-wise anyway...we didn't eat there, just had Cokes). We took the tram back into central Antwerp and got off at the Groenplaats (Green Place) where there happens to be a Sunday afternoon flower market. For a measly 1 euro I bought a cute little primrose in a little pot that is now sitting in our kitchen window sill next to the miniature banana JieJie got from a classmate's birthday party. Next Sunday I'll bring more money--we need some greenery in the apartment.
This evening we got the sad news that John's maternal aunt Eileen passed away early this morning. She was a wonderful, kind, gracious lady. She lived in Kentucky but had visited us in Virginia and had met both girls, which we're glad of. She was 86. Our thoughts are with John's cousins M and B and their families tonight. Amen.