Friday, October 3, 2008

What do I miss most (May 14, 2007)

A friend of mine recently asked me what do I miss most about Belgium living now here in the US. It's a large question with numerous small answers. When it comes to things it is easy. I miss chocolate. Good chocolate at a decent price. I miss the food we have in the supermarket, like diced bacon, or white sausage. And good heavens I miss public transport.
I am just not used to the car mentality of the US. I had the good fortune in Belgium to live the my last six years there in Antwerp, which -while not the capital of Belgium- any serious born and bred Antwerpian will assure you is the capital of the world. Or at least it's center. What it is in reality, is a delightful city, in which you can get everywhere either on foot or by public transportation. Imagine being able to walk from your house to about 7 different museums, 6 historical churches, a supermarket, a movietheater, and an array of shops that will provide you with everything from clothing, to chocolates to household items. I miss that.... I miss the feeling of ... community even in that big city. There is so much more interaction between people when you are walking somewhere, and somehow you feel much more as if you are a part of the city when you are in it freely instead of in the glass cage of your car. I wonder if it would be possible to create that kind of feeling in the US. It seems as if most of the shopping has moved out of the city into plaza's or malls, little islands of consumerism that have little to do with the city itsself. Somehow, the little shops, butchers, bakers (no candlestick makers anymore, but some candle shops) belong to the city and it's traffic pattern. Why would one want to leave the city and go to an inpersonal mall when you can stroll along the Meir, see the old and beautiful buildings and do some shopping in between.

While the Meir might be one of the most well known and popular shopping streets of Antwerp, it is mostly a street where the big chainstores that you find everywhere in Europe have their clothing and other stores. From the Meir however and down to the Groenplaats, one of the cosiest squares in Antwerp, you can swarm out in the side streets and find more unique stores. There is the fashion district of course, near the Fashion Museum, but there is also the wonderful store Dille and Kamille with oldfashioned kitchen supplies and herbs, one of my favorite shops is specialised in fountainpens geared towards students first learning how to write as well as the high end collectors. There is Marie Marie, a shop speciliased in the most beautiful bedlinnens, and on the Wapper my favorite lace and linnen store Dupon Lace House, across the house of Rubens.

I love that store, with it's pristine napkins in cotton or linnen, it's lace bordered hankerchief, and of course the collection of magnificent old and new lace. Here I found my wedding veil, handmade with lily of the valleys on the lace. The veil was unique and so was the experience of shopping for it. I guess the... uniqueness of the European shopping experience is something that I miss. Not just the products, but the little shops, the interaction, the people who own their own shops and don't pounce on you hoping for commission the moment you step inside.
It's all part of the charm of the city, it's traffic pattern if you want: the memory of my mother on a saturday or sunday going to the market with a backpack or a basket and come back with fresh bread, vegetables, specialty foods and a bouquet of flowers under her arm. People moving from there to the squares, eating fries in tippy bags with mayonaise on, and just walk to the river or enjoy the sun on the square or the view of 'their' beautiful cathedral that watches over the city as it has done for the last 700 years... community, history and personality... I guess that is what I miss most.

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