August 12 – 13, 2017
The weather continues to be iffy and really that’s the biggest bummer of this bike trip so far. But it also gave me an excuse to get out of Ghent late because I was a bit hung over and had definitely stayed out too late the night before. I just hadn’t wanted to leave that cool space and stop hanging out with Sarah and Christina. But a late start today meant that I would either miss the parade or have to take the train. I always want to do everything, which of course is impossible, so that’s a tough one for me. I compromised by biking for about 20 miles to the town of Lokeren and hopping on a train there. Once again the conductor escorted me town elevator rather than me having to lug all my stuff up the stairs. Sarah had said they were often not the nicest so either I am lucky or they have a soft spot for lost looking American cyclists. Either way I’ll take it.
When I got to the Antwerp station it was a bit of a production finding a locker that was free and not broken and then changing into normal clothes before biking off to the parade. In retrospect. I could have gotten off at the earlier Antwerp station which was just a bit closer to my host’s house near the neighborhood of Borgerhout and just dropped all my stuff there for free. But this was my first time using the Dutch service Vrienden op de Fiets so I had no idea what to expect there, let alone know how to navigate the city.
So I missed the parade and got there just as everyone was streaming into the festival. There was a main stage and a drag stage and food, drink and tchotchke venders in between and it really wasn’t too different from Portland Pride really. But I always like going to queer events around the world, seeing and supporting my people. There were definitely some interesting performances including an intensely rainbow drag king, a queen on hoppy stilt like things with a King MC backup, a queen in a wheelchair singing The Little Mermaid, and plenty of contests resulting in free shots. I had a beer and some frites and went to go meet my host.
Marleen was a woman in her early 60s who looked younger with long white hair that had clearly been very blonde. She had a tall narrow house with a room at the very top for me. I found her place through this Dutch service I mentioned above that is for people traveling by bike specifically (or by foot, canoe, or skate). Once you join for a small fee you get access to this huge database of people you can stay with for only €19 a night. It includes their surname with Mr, Mrs, or Family in front of it, their contact info, address and whether it is a spare room, cabin or caravan. Besides that there is almost no information. There are certainly no pictures of either the host or the room, reviews or anything like that. So you’re basically totally blind as I understand it. But writing this several days and 2 hosts later I can say it will likely always been worth it. So far they tend to be older, well off Benelux folks who have gone on a few trips themselves and are happy to meet travelers. It’s kind of old school and a bit weird to get used to be so far amazing. I’ll tell you more as my journey continues.
I had told her that I would be coming from the parade so, along with suggesting a pretty square to sit in and/or grab a bite to eat very near her house she also suggested a gay bar a block farther on. (She said something like, “if you would like to keep the same theme” or something equally cute). As I lay in bed after a shower contemplating what I should do with my night I decided I didn’t have the energy for the giant 3 room girls party. It was in this very cool looking neighborhood but it was 2 miles away (an easy ride for sure but not a walk) and €20. I just didn’t have it in me.
So I took Marleen’s suggestion and walked around to the bar near her house. It was fairly quiet but clearly gay when I got there and I did feel a little awkward sitting at the bar alone. But in short order this very sweet gay man started talking to me and we fell deep into conversation (he said the world still likes Americans just hates Donald Trump, he was a Bernie supporter, take that as you will) as he bought me another couple beers and slowly the bar around us transformed into a happening Saturday night spot. In fact, a woman climbed up on the bar right in front of me and danced Coyote Ugly style for a very long time. When I went into the crowd to go dance for a bit myself he was gone when I came back. But it was way past my bedtime anyhow.
The next day I had breakfast with Marleen and her husband (boyfriend?) Emil, who spoke no English. (Although if I could have spoken Dutch, Russian or something else, maybe German? We could have chatted, so my bad really…) But we managed to talk about my trip a bit and we looked at a map and marveled at how tall the west coast of the US is. Marleen acted as if she didn’t travel too terribly much but she had actually been to the US a couple times. The most interesting to me was hearing her talk about a trip to South Dakota to help at a Native American protest. She then took a Greyhound bus all the way to NYC somehow losing her ticket part way. She couldn’t remember how they made it the rest of the way. But it sure sounded like an adventure to me.
Then I headed out to the Eilandje, a hip (and gentrifying) neighborhood in the harbor area (where the party I didn’t go to had been the night before) to see some of the Queer Arts Fest. It was small but nice, although I missed this really interesting performance piece by Gil and Moti that I really wanted to see. Antwerp Pride had an app but it wasn’t useful for any of the recurring events because it used the time of the first one rather than the correct time for the day indicated. Oh well. Anyway, they are these crazy sounding Israeli guys who dress alike every day and had a piece about online dating a third they had for awhile.
I had a quick bite at a Belgian chain called Balls & Glory, which was actually quite good, especially their apple rhubarb juice, wish I wished I had more of, before heading to the main festival closing event. With so many bikes it was hard to find a place to lock mine up and I knew the place I chose had a little too much traffic to expect it to still be upright when I returned. Everyone here has kickstands and often this little device already attached that locks the back wheel. I’m not convinced that would be enough to deter a thief with a truck in the US but I have been really really jealous of people just standing their bikes up and parking anywhere. I can’t even use the actual bike racks because my U lock doesn’t fit around the thick bars. If you don’t have that little device here you use a thick chain. I don’t think I’ve seen another U lock at all.
The main performance was crowded and had a lot of performers that seemed to be very well known to these people but whom I had never heard of. Some were better than others. This Dutch/German guy was like a young and wild cross between Barry Manilow, Rod Stewart and Sigfried and Roy so that was entertaining. Another woman seemed to be the Belgian Celine Dion and she looked so good for her age, but went on way too long. I tried to hang on long enough for this dyke folk rock singer who had moved from Belgium to Tennessee but I just couldn’t stand in the smoke any more and wanted to explore. Did I mention besides the obvious beer drinking there is a ton of smoking here still?
It was a Sunday so lots of things were beginning to close but I had just enough time to get a really good array of touristy things done. I had a quick Trippel at the oldest bar in Belgium, Cafe Quinten Matsijs , served by a bartender that expressed jealousy that I had come from the fest because she really wanted to be there (was she flirting with me?). Then I went to the fashion museum and, finally, The Chocolate Line, apparently the Belgian chocolate store to go to in Antwerp. I chose every single piece I wanted to try and still had room in the box so the guy just continued to fill it. I thought there was no way I could ever finish it but it went much faster than I could have expected, biking the next day while on my period. I mean, you can’t ask for a better snack than Belgian chocolate in that circumstance.