I know that Saturday was only December 1 but I thought we’d get a Christmas tree as we are going to Ireland on the 20th. While, in theory, I really admire the Belgians for not making Christmas a two month orgy, I was, nevertheless, slightly peeved when having promised herself that we would decorate one while the boys napped, there were no Christmas trees to be had.
30 days of non-stop blogging and a nasty head cold had taken their toll on me and I retired to bed for a nap after lunch and slept until, eeek, 3.23. Catastrophe. Despite rousing the boys and chivying the Princess we only managed to get out the door at 4.23 meaning that we arrived at the Grand Place at 4.55 which, I can tell you was a herculean effort involving much sprinting and mincing the ankles of innocent tourists with our buggy. Alas, too late. Saint Nicolas and his donkey, his brass band, his little black helpers (I know, I know) and his supply of free sweets had gone leaving only a mound of sweet wrappers to mark his passing. The Princess bawled. I nearly cried myself. To add insult to injury, another Saint Nicolas was in the Grand Place surrounded by an anxious band of kiddies and their parents. Unfortunately, he and his helpers were there to do a photo shoot and didn’t want children in the way so this was, possibly, the only Santa on earth who shooed children away. My poor little mites held out their hands longingly to touch the great man’s cloak and were brushed away by angry men saying “Stand back, stand back”. If I could have found out what they were advertising I would tell you so that you could boycott it.
We pushed off to look at the live crib and they were interested in the sheep. Mr. Waffle then had the genius idea of taking them to the merry-go-round which saved our bacon and largely wiped out the memory of mean Santa.
Saint Nicolas normally comes on the night of December 5 in Belgium, however, he is a busy man and he comes to different houses at different times. He came to us on Saturday night. The Princess reverently placed a carrot for his donkey inside the door on a plastic lid. She lined up her shoes and the boys’. She agonised that Saint Nicolas might not know where to put the presents in the absence of a Christmas tree but we reassured her. We put out a special tablecloth and left out for Saint Nicolas two speculoos biscuits and a bottle of Christmas beer (this is Belgium, of course Saint Nicolas drinks beer). I put the Princess to bed and read her her story – “The Night before Christmas”. “Put it on the table for Saint Nicolas to read, big people like to have something to read while they’re eating”
Saint Nicolas and his donkey came and polished off their treats. The Princess got a bicycle. Oh the excitement. It was fantastic. The boys were slightly less entranced with their wooden toys and felt that, if he were any good, Saint Nicolas would have brought them bicycles too. Some squabbling ensued only partially resolved by distribution of the chocolate, mandarins and marzipan pigs left in the children’s shoes (the hygiene implications of this are mildly alarming but since Michael yesterday bent down and tasted the water in a puddle we probably have more serious concerns, like Weil’s disease).
The day was young, we’d all been up since 6.30. This gave us ample time to make 9.00 mass, almost on time though the Princess cycled and I walked with the boys. They were really keen to walk so I let them, a decision I had ample opportunity to regret as I marshalled them towards the church in the driving rain over a period of 20 long minutes.
We had intended to go to Antwerp Zoo to meet the Dutch Mama and her family (it being a half way point between Brussels and the Hague) but the cold driving rain had really put me off even though the children were very hyped up. We took them home and put them in front of Barney while we telephoned back and forth to the Hague to decide what we would do. I think it was in Dooce that I read that it’s not Barney that’s sinister but those stage struck children who play with him. This is true. My daughter is turning into them. She’s a great little mimic (she does an excellent English accent based on her friend L’s diction which she just puts on all the time except when I want to record it for youtube ‘before cars everyone had hosses’ ‘horses’ ‘yes hosses”) and it’s slightly terrifying. I digress. The Dutch Mama’s husband is some kind of nuclear engineer and when the nuclear disaster comes it is he who will be limiting the damage. It is therefore comforting that he is a precise and thorough man but I still had some difficulty believing his claim that though it was raining in Brussels and the Hague “the rain in Antwerp stopped three minutes ago”. In the end, we went. We had no alternative plan and we feared being rent limb from limb by the children, if they didn’t get to the zoo.
I’ve never been to the zoo in Antwerp before. It’s next door to the station and, therefore, right in the centre of town, overlooked by apartment buildings. It is very odd but strangely endearing. It has an out of town arm (Plankendael) which I have never liked (memorably we once paid 42 euros to get into Plankendael and wallow in the mud and a further 16 to make our own sandwiches) but is strangely popular with other people. I did like the Zoo though. Since it was mostly pouring rain, we largely had the place to ourselves. The children were delighted to meet again and so were their parents. While the parents were somewhat unenthused by the icy driving rain, the children didn’t seem to mind. And we had the burger restaurant to ourselves except for a couple of pigeons (again, those niggling hygiene concerns). I know zoos aren’t really very nice for the animals but as we stood there huddling together (the adults, the children were haring around delighted with themselves) in the rain looking in at the monkeys in their nice warm dry climate controlled glass boxes, it was hard not to feel a tiny bit envious. I’d still go back like a flash though.
The Dutch Mama and I have a thriving system of clothing exchange for children and I had brought her a big bag of things (mostly hers now going back to her to kit out her extremely cute new baby – quite possibly the best child in the world – she spent her time at the zoo smiling or sleeping, mind you, she was in her buggy with its waterproof cladding). Having brought them all the way to Antwerp, I was determined to hand them over. Once Michael slipped on his bottom in the mud in the zoo our time there was up. We decided to cut our losses and head for home. We entered into a complex arrangement whereby Mr. Waffle would hand the bag of clothes over to Mr. Dutch Mama at the zoo gates. He did so while I stayed with my children in the car and the hardy Dutch children continued their exploration of the zoo with their Mama. I would like to say now that I appreciate that a paper bag full of clothes and weighing a ton was probably not the best container for a wet wet wet day. I am hoping that a) the bag didn’t dissolve and b) the Dutch contingent will some day forgive me.