We’re in the English Channel. Our ETA to Antwerp is 7:49 in the morning on July 21st. We’ve been out of American waters for a while, but the sea feels the same, without borders, without flags, so it doesn’t seem like I’m really in Europe just from watching the waves. We could be anywhere. Anywhere in the oceanic world that is. Josh and I think we see France off on the horizon while we sit together up on the pilot deck, reading and watching the increasing amount of sea traffic. But we can’t tell for certain. Not even through our binoculars.
So I go find the chief engineer and ask him to take me to the engine room again so I can get some pictures. He’s agreeable to the plan and we go down. In the middle of the photo shoot we stop in the control room and “take” coffee.
We talk until our coffee is drunk and a little bit longer after. When I’ve gotten all the pictures I want we go back to the outer door and part ways.
The rest of the day goes by and I try to get to sleep early. We’ll sail past Dover around 3:00 A.M. and I want to be up to see the lights.
I sleep light and at three I stumble out of my bed, pull back the shades, and catch the lights of Dover. All I can think is the line from My Fair Lady when Eliza says, “Come on, Dover! Come on, Dover, move your bloomin’ ass!” So I write it in my notebook and go back to bed until just before six when the pilot is supposed to come on board to guide us down the sea to the river. We’ll get a river pilot when we get closer to Belgium.
I don’t want to miss anything. Wide-eyed and bushy tailed I head up to the bridge. “Good morning,” I say quietly to the chief officer, to Ian who is manning the wheel, to the captain and to the pilot. I go stand some place out of the way and watch the sun rise.
I drink some vile coffee and watch and watch and watch.
We exchange pilots somewhere around breakfast time. I rush down for some breakfast and then come back up to keep my continuing watch. The captain has left to rest for a while and get his breakfast, Charlton has replaced Ian at the steering wheel, and the third officer has replaced the chief officer.
The river pilot is Flemish and he laughs at everything. He asks the third officer if he works out. The third seems tired (his hair isn’t gelled this morning) and he isn’t in a joking mood, hardly seems like he wants to talk. “No,” he says.
“You have a lot of muscles is why I asked,” the pilot keeps on.
The third still isn’t getting into the conversation and I start to wonder where his muscles came from myself. Something gets said that I miss. The pilot laughs and Dan bristles.
“Just a joke,” the pilot says. Still laughing. “Just a joke.”
He learns that this is my first time to Europe so he points out Holland when we pass it by.
We pass a windmill. The kind I’ve seen in pictures, in paintings. The ones that draw out a pictogram of the Netherlands. And I think, holy shit, I’m actually in Europe.
The pilot tells me about the French Belgiums and the Flemish Belgiums. He talks about the energy powering Belgium; the nuclear plant and the windmills that are going up all over. He tries to think up the places I should see in Antwerp. “When we get a little closer,” he says, “you can use my internet to look some things up. If you have time you should go to Brussels. There’s much more to see there.”
He gets so involved in helping me find out what time the MAS (Museum Aan De Stroom) opens and how much it costs that he almost forgets to call out the coordinates to Ian who has replaced Charlton at the wheel.
“Port five,” he says.
“Port five,” Ian repeats, and then when the ship is at port five, “Rudder Port five, sir.”
“If the company allowed it,” he says, “I’d let you come in the car they send for me.”
But I know I have to do something with immigration. I’m not in the proverbial (or literal, thank god) Kansas anymore.
“No,” the captain says, “she does have to go through immigration.”
“Thanks anyways,” I say. “Safe travels home.”
“Have a good time in Europe,” he tells me. “Best of luck.”
There’s some waiting time and I go get lunch. When the agent comes, I head down to the ship’s office and find out that a car will come get both Josh and me to take us to immigration. “Be sure and tell them exactly what your intentions are,” the captain says, “that you are not signing off here, but continuing to Hamburg. The passenger Josh will need to tell them if he’s staying or not.”
Josh is signing off here and he’s packed and ready to go.
I’ve got my computer in my bag. We’re staying longer in Antwerp than had been originally planned, five days instead of one or two, and I have to get things set up for my travels from Hamburg to Sweden. My goal is to be with my friend Pontus in Sweden on August 1st in time for the start of the Raw Food Festival he’s cohosting. It’ll be a close cut on time, but I think I’ll manage. I think. I wonder if I should sign off here in Antwerp. I could, but I’m not ready to say goodbye to the DALIAN. I want to ride all the way to Germany, be with these guys just a little bit longer.
“Two strange Americans”, as Josko had said of me and Josh, take the path to the gangway. There’s a flurry of Filipinos at the sign-in podium.
“You’re not signing off?” one of them asks.
“No,” I say. “You guys aren’t rid of me yet.” They seem relieved.
Josh and I walk the concrete to where our car is idling. Our driver seems in a bad mood. I’m not sure how long he’s waited. We get in and he revs the engine and takes off. “To immigration?” he asks.
“Yes,” we say.
“Where are your visas?” he asks. “Let me see your passports.”
Josh hands his passport up and the driver flips through it. There is no visa.
“You don’t have a visa,” the driver says.
“It’s my understanding,” Josh says, “that we don’t need a visa.”
That’s my understanding too. I hope we’re both right because I don’t have a visa either. I envision us both ending up in a Belgium jail. I have no idea how that’d be and I don’t want to find out. I don’t like to be locked up.
The driver makes a call. It’s in Flemish, but I can catch the gist of what he’s saying with regards to visas and passports and Americans. Eventually, he hangs up. “You were right,” he admits. “You don’t need a visa.” He adds, “I just had to check,” almost as an apology. He drives fast and has an inclination to road rage. Josh and I hang on tight and exchange an occasional worried look.
“So,” the driver asks. “Will you pay for this now or later?”
Josh and I exchange another look. We weren’t warned about a fee.
“How much is it?” one of us asks.
“Seventy-five euros,” he answers.
Josh and I both nearly have heart attacks. That’s about eighty-some-odd dollars and neither one of us have euros yet.
“I don’t have any euros,” Josh tells him.
“First stop immigration,” the driver says, “then an ATM. Then I’ll take you into town wherever you want to go.”
We get our passports stamped. I’m sure to tell them I’m staying on until Hamburg and ask if I’ll have to come back to immigration to get stamped out of the country. I hope they say no since I don’t want to pay another seventy-five euros on my own. The officer tells me that I will have to and I sigh.
It’s only money. I’m here in Europe. I can hardly believe it.
“Sorry you have to work on a holiday,” I tell the driver trying to see if I can break his mood; he’s still grumpy. It’s Saturday, and Belgium’s birthday. Since the actual date falls on a weekend the country will celebrate the national holiday on Monday. This is part of the reason we’re staying so long here, because of the work scheduling over the holiday.
I know how I feel about working holidays. I know
how I feel about working in general and I can say the words with true sincerity.
My tactic works and the driver melts some, though his driving doesn’t slow and his habit of cutting others off doesn’t end. “I work all the time,” he says without rancor.
We stop at an ATM. While Josh is inside getting his money the driver gives me a company card so I can call for a ride back to the dock later that night when I’m ready to return.
“I don’t have a phone. Are there pay phones I can use?” I ask.
“The best thing to do is to go to a bar and ask them to call us for you,” he says. “Then they can give their location and that’ll be the easiest thing.”
“Will they all hate me because I speak English?” I ask.
He laughs at me. “No, don’t worry. Everyone here speaks English.”
I go get my money. Then he drives us into the center of town. Josh plans to stay at a hostel nearby and I’m wanting to look around some and then find an internet café so I can check emails and buy a train ticket from Germany to Sweden. The driver gives us directions to an information center. I hope Josh is paying attention because I forget to. We split the fare, thank the driver, and get out together.
We wander down the street. I look up at the buildings. I stare at the people. I crane my neck to see the cathedral’s spire. Josh and I get free maps at the information center. He looks for the hostels he’s researched and I ask about free wifi places. Back outside in the open air, we decide to first get a beer and then part company. We walk around so long trying to choose a place I start to think we’ll roam forever. But finally in the end, we find a little pizzeria and take an outside seat. We order cherry beer (which I think tastes like cough syrup and is nasty) and get pizzas.
I adjust my bag and walk away. There’s a fizzing relief in being alone again. A solid contentment in my own company, in the ease of my thoughts, in the conversations in my head, in the release to do whatever I need or want to do.
I stop at the corner of the street and look around. I’m really here. I’m in Belgium. Me.
I’m captivated by the atmosphere. It feels old and warm. It feels just like meeting someone for the first time and realizing that we’ve known each other all along.