We're already a third of the way through our trip! The weather's been fine and with so much to do, writing has taken a back seat to doing, as it should be.
In the year since we've left, a few things have changed here and there. We've noticed some restaurants have closed and new ones have opened, streets that were ripped up last year are now open and vice versa, the trams have new advertising painted on them, and some buildings that were being cleaned last year (on Leysstraat and at Franklin Rooseveltplaats) are looking great. The train station Antwerpen Centraal is covered with scaffolding all over the front facade and looks to be in for a major cleaning/restoration. In addition, the dome is being covered with copper. It will be beautiful when it's done, before the copper gets its green patina. Inside the train station, more levels are open, and the high-speed Thalys train now goes from here to Paris in half the time it used to take.
Two major changes for the better, one small, one big: the closest playground to the faculty flat got a major makeover and went from concrete/graffiti/chainlink to a wide open grassy space with the playground eqipment resting on that recycled rubbery stuff that makes jumping fun and safe. It's fantastic! We would've been down there every day last year if it had been so nice. The other change? Don't laugh...they cleaned up all the dog poo! Last year we learned to watch our step because it was just everywhere. I don't know whether it's a summertime tourism cleanup or a public health effort. Who cares? The sidewalks are no longer a doggy-doo minefield.
Friday night John went to the Antwerp American Club meeting near Brussels and had a good time, followed by watching European Cup Soccer (Turkey/Croatia, a real nail-biter). I brought the girls over to our friends' house to make pizza and hang out. Saturday our friends came down from The Netherlands and we went to a restaurant that is a parent's DREAM: Sensunik, on Molenstraat (Tram 7 to the Gounodstraat station).
Here's the deal: make a reservation first and tell them you want your kids to be in the kids' room. Then you get to the restaurant, your kids pre-order their food and go scrambling up to the third-floor No Parents Allowed supervised playroom (they pay high school age girls to play with and watch the kids). Then you are escorted to your table in an intimate dining room to settle in for a good old fashioned 3-hour Belgian meal. AAAAAHHHHHH!!!! We could peek at the playroom on a closed-circuit tv across the room if we felt like it, but most of the time we just enjoyed our delicious meal. For appetizers we had some dim sum, loempia (spring rolls) and salad, John had steak with an out-of-this-world pepper sauce for dinner, mine was white asparagus with shrimp in butter sauce, M had Asparagus Vlaamse Weij (in the Flemish way) which is with crumbled egg and butter sauce, and R had a great looking pasta dish. We had wine, we had dessert and coffee (my panna cotta was incredible), we had a blast. The kids didn't ask for us ONCE. They didn't want to leave when it was time to go, either! They each chose a prize (light-up dolphins for JieJie, MeiMei and V, one whoopee cushion for older brother S) and we were off on the tram back to hotel / apartment.
Yesterday we met at Aquatopia, a favorite of the kids' from last year. Our friends were staying right next door at the Astrid hotel. They were able to get tickets at a sizeable discount, which was great, though Aquatopia is worth full-price as well. It's a really well-designed aquarium complex that takes you through all different biomes, from the rainforest to an Australian canyon to coral reefs and shark tanks, complete with lighting and sound effects. When we got to the snack area, K3 was playing and our girls were singing along...quite funny. We had our snack while watching sharks, rays, and grouper swimming around in a tank. When we went to the catwalk over the shark tank, it was feeding time--so cool! I've never seen sharks and rays come up out of the water to be fed before. Every once in a while the employee threw some chum over toward the spectators and we all got splashed by the ensuing feeding frenzy. Lots of laughs.
After Aquatopia we took a stroll around the train station and diamond district, had an ice cream and said goodbye, heading back to the apartment for a rest. It's been really important to make time for resting so the girls can put their best feet forward. I'm not sure why I think so, but I think if we had been here a semester this year instead of last, it would've been harder for the girls to adjust. Last year, at 4 and 3 years old, they just assumed that whatever we were doing was what we were supposed to be doing. This year, at 6 and soon-to-be-5, they have much more of a sense of what they might rather be doing, and it makes a difference. They're still great little travelers, but what a difference a year makes.
Bruce Springsteen at the Sportpaleis tonight!