Writing: on board the 11:57am train from Rotterdam Centraal to Antwerp Centraal, spacious first class seat courtesy of the invaluable EURail 1st class pass I have.
It was hard to leave London yesterday. Not just because London is such a great city with so many things to do… it was actually hard leaving London. Way too much travel for a sunny day.
It all started when the Tube’s Circle Line, which was supposed to take me from High Street Kensington to St. Pancras International, turned out to be under construction for most of its route. District Line to Gloucester Road, then the Piccadilly Line all the way up to St. Pancras stopping in just about one thousand stops on its way there.
The St. Pancras International is an international train station, adjacent to the Kings Cross Tube station. The Eurostar trains depart from here towards Europe’s mainland, crossing the English Channel underwater (obviously. Had it been overwater, it would make one hell of a funky train ride, don’t you think?) and arriving at Brussels‐Midi in just over two hours. That’s fast.
The Eurostar ride itself was pleasant. The Bose noise‐cancelling headphones, along with an 80% asleep Dutchman right in front of me, made the Eurostar ride a good opportunity to finish yesterday’s blog.
Finally arrived at Brussels‐Midi, when a French youngster approached us and asked “excuse me, what stop is this?”.
– “… Did we pass Lille?”
Lille is the first stop that the Eurostar makes once it’s in Europe’s mainland. That’s also the reason, by the way, that before departing this train from London, you have to go through passport control manned by French immigration officers.
He didn’t seem too pleased to hear the answer “yes”. Turns out that he and his girlfriend were sleeping the entire way. Finding a way back to Lille would be a pain in the butt, considering the fact that the duo had more or less 10 (!) medium‐sized backpacks to carry, plus a surfboard.
Lesson number one: never count stops when travelling by train, and never fall asleep unless you assign something to wake you up.
Travel tip to EURail pass holders: EURail pass doesn’t cover the Eurostar trains, however you are entitled for a discount. Your fare is called “pass holder’s fare” and it is fixed (i.e. doesn’t increase as departure time nears). Having said that, that fare is actually slightly higher than the fare you would pay if you booked a Eurostar ticket online well, well in advance.
We decided to stop for some food in Brussels‐Midi instead of rushing for the next train. A good sandwich, followed by a delicious Belgian waffle (oh, it’s done differently here than other places I’ve been to. You are hereby commanded to try out a Belgian waffle while in Belgium) served to us by a cute waitress that found it hard to stop smiling at me (do I look funny?!), a latte at the end… yeah, that hit the spot.
And that was pretty much the last pleasant part of the travel. Boarded a train from Brussels‐Midi towards Delft, The Netherlands. The train had something about it that was just very discouraging. It was also not the cleanest. Sunny weather, not the greatest ventilation and my f**king Lord are these people noisy. For most of the trip, I felt like I’m a guest of honour in some talk show, only that I did the shutting the f**k up part while everybody else were talking.
As now we’re officially in the European Union, there are no borders anymore so it’s sometimes a bit tricky to know when you actually cross to another country. I asked Jeroen how can I know when we’re at The Netherlands already; he said “once things stop being grey, old and boring”. I thought he was joking, he insisted that he wasn’t.
I wouldn’t say that things are so bad there to make you want to cut your veins… but it’s not awfully far from that. I’m not sure if I can put my finger on it… but looking through the car’s window, I couldn’t really see anything that I could call “pretty” without feeling some sort of guilt. From the train ride, things indeed looked bleak, dusty, sad. Incomplete. I can’t help but wonder whether this is the reason the word Belgium served as the substitute for the word fuck in the US edition of Douglas Adams’ Life, the Universe and Everything.
The train that was supposed to take us all the way to Delft (the city where Jeroen lives) was interrupted somewhere along the way due to railroad work being performed over the weekend. We had to leave the train in Schiedam Centrum station, and then take a bus (!) to Delft. Weather was hot, humid… unventilated bus. Millions of people. If I asked my dear friend Robin to describe “hell”, he would probably come up with something pretty close to that.
A radio station was playing in the bus. Some talk show. Folks, I can’t understand a word in Dutch… To me, the language sounds as if someone accidentally swallowed a fur ball and is now having great difficulty spitting it out. If I had a cat and it started speaking Dutch, I’d probably rush it to the vet for some respiratory inspection.
FINALLY, we arrived at Delft’s temporary bus station. Walked towards Jeroen’s place; memories of my last time here, last September, started popping up. Delft is a beautiful little city that is well worth at least a few days visit. Anyway, it was great, at last, to be in a friend’s apartment rather than in some hotel room. I could tell that Jeroen was very happy to be home.
The rest of the day was spent doing some final planning for the next few weeks, as well as a delicious dinner at home (well… food delivery. Quoting Jeroen, who is quite the gracious host: “Are you hungry? I’m not going to cook anything”).
Gave John Illsley’s “Streets of Heaven” and Mike McGoldrick’s “Aurora” a listen. Wonderful albums.
Went to sleep late.
You’re probably asking yourself what is that brownish round thing on the plate. You’re probably thinking “no way these are chocolate sprinkles on a biscuit”; if you do, sorry about your luck because this is exactly what it is. In Dutch they call it “Beschuit met Hagelslag” (to pronounce it, stick a fur ball down your throat and attempt a reverse somersault), and it’s a very common breakfast dessert. Someone should bring this concept to North America… Oh, I can see this thing starring at the $5.99 all‐you‐can‐eat buffets in Niagara Falls.
Repeated attempts to convince Jeroen to quit his job and join me for the rest of the tour went unsuccessful; I tell you, this guy is stubborn. Shortly after breakfast, we walked together to the bus station, where we bid each other goodbye. See you June 28 in Amsterdam, buddy!
Bus to Schiedam Centrum… train to Rotterdam Centraal. An hourly train departs to Antwerp, and I decided to do some train bookings.
Another tip for the EURail pass holder: some special trains (such as Thalys, TGV as well as most overnight, sleeper trains) require seat reservation. Remember, the fact that you hold a pass only allows you to get on a train, it doesn’t necessarily guarantees a seat. While it is OK to stand in some trains, the high‐speed trains do not allow it, hence the compulsory reservation. The tricky part here is that most high‐speed trains hold a limited amount of seats eligible for pass‐holders’ reservations. Why? Because the world is cruel. Don’t ask me.
Therefore, for high‐speed trains, make your reservations as early as possible. Often, you can do these reservations even before leaving your home country (for example, Rail Europe offers this functionality through their website; it costs almost twice than the other alternative, though); or, you can do that in any sizable European train station (but not in the UK).
For reasons I can only attribute to mere human stupidity, you cannot do these reservations online except for train travel that is wholly inside Germany.
Complex, huh? Yeah I know. “Global village” my ass.
Writing: at the hotel, 11:15pm, post‐concert
Maarten, who is well known amongst the various Knopfler fan forum members, was born in Antwerp and suggested that we meet in Antwerp’s central train station so we can tour the city together. Very kind of him; we met at the train station as soon as the train arrived.
Whatever I wrote above about Belgium isn’t at all relevant to Antwerp’s central station and city centre. The central station looks like a museum—very impressive; three (!) levels of trains go through that station, and man is it a beauty. Unfortunately I didn’t take any pictures… will take some tomorrow morning before I depart.
Was raining outside so we decided to get a taxi cab to the hotel, which is 700 meters away from the station but somehow took about 5 minutes to get to by a car. Hotel Ambassador was my hotel of choice. Well… kind of a shot in the dark as I have never been here before. Not bad, really… it’s actually an apartment‐hotel; you don’t get a room, you get a spacious one bedroom unit, with a living room, kitchen and everything. Cheap, too. I’m happy.
Once unloaded the backpack, we went outside to see the city. Weather was very humid, hot, and grey. That kind of weather that makes you want to take an endless cold shower.
It’s a pretty walk in Antwerp’s city centre area; however, nothing can really be beautiful for me when I’m hungry. It was a Sunday afternoon, and many restaurants were closed. At the end, we sat down in some Italian restaurant right in the middle of the touristic area. Pricey, but acceptable; pasta with salmon and some cream sauce went for €10. It wasn’t bad; but then again, this is salmon with some creamy sauce. It takes a lot of skill to screw up creamy sauce so it tastes ugly. I don’t think that restaurant had that skill.
And what’s better to wash things down with, than coffee? Maarten led us to this wonderful place called “Daily Roast” in Hoogstraat. This is a coffee shop offering all sorts of coffees. Delicious latte, not too bad on the wallet considering what you get. I was impressed; however I got more impressed once I was introduced to what’s inside the cafe (we were sitting at the terrace. Everything in Belgium is about terraces. Go to Brussels at afternoon / evening… terraces is all you see), at the lower level.
Decided to go back to the hotel to rest for a bit before the show; took the tram to the central station and I walked from there. I took the opportunity to take one picture of the central station’s exterior.
At the hotel, I didn’t have much time to rest… decided to leave early so I can be at the Lotto Arena in time for the early door opening for markknopfler.com ticket buyers.
Writing: on board the 10:17am train from Antwerp Centraal to Brussels‐Nord
It’s not such a long walk from my hotel to the Lotto Arena, but still I decided to take public transit. The Metro’s line 6 took me directly to the Sport station, which is where the Lotto Arena is located. Very hard to miss it even if you try; I arrived there at around 5:30pm.
Ingrid was there already. I was introduced to a few Knopfler fans who have been reading this blog over the last few weeks… nice to meet you all.
markknopfler.com ticket buyers to this general admission show have received an email with instructions what they have to do in order to enter the arena 15 minutes before the general audience. In general admission shows (yesterday’s, by the way, was my first general‐admission concert since 1993’s Guns n’ Roses concert in a country far, far away. I was 15 years old), this amounts to a great deal of comfort as there is no need to line up hours over hours before the show in order to “catch a good spot”. More on that later.
Anyway, from that email, it was unclear (at least to me) when tickets should be picked up, and when should the purchasers gather. Not to worry, though, as Ingrid is just the right individual to sort things like these out. Before long, we all picked our tickets up (at 6:00pm) and were lead to a side entrance. At 6:15pm, we entered the venue—a group of maybe 20 people (followed by another few dozens a few minutes later).
The arena was empty when we entered. Ingrid was already occupying a respectable spot at the front (how she did that? I have no clue. I entered the venue 10–15 seconds after her), so I approached and sat on the immensely ass‐unfriendly plateau at the front of the arena.
We had a quick chat about the ethics (or anti‐ethics, if you may) of general admission shows. The more I heard, the less I wanted to be there. Quite frankly, one of the reasons I decided to move to Canada in the first place is the sense of personal space and freedom that you get there; eight years in the hands‐down #1 best country to live in have turned me into an individual that is pretty anal when it comes to his personal space and sense of comfort.
At 6:30pm, the doors opened for the general audience. Remember the Running of the Bulls from the Royal Albert Hall show? well, the audience charging at the front of the stage was very similar in nature, however much scarier for the simple reason that it was me who was the target (well, not really me; the centre of the stage was. But that’s exactly where I was seated). I didn’t know whether I should get up and signal the bulls to stop or just squeeze into fetal position and hope for the best; luckily, the bulls stopped their charge a few millimetres from my private areas.
I continued sitting there chatting with people, while sipping a bottle of water. Now, whoever here is a virgin in general admission shows would probably wonder why I underlined the last few words in the previous sentence. Please allow me to introduce you to rule number #1 in attending general admission concerts: if your location is really important to you, avoid taking any action that would result in you needing the toilets. Golden rule #2: if you violated rule #1, you must at least ensure that you go to the toilet before the concert starts, otherwise you are very unlikely to return to your original location.
Pondering whether I should just phase my internal needs out via sweat, or rather just go to the toilet and get it over with, I decided to go to the toilet and, really, screw everything else. And so I made my way from the very centre of the stage’s front—all the way to the toilet.
Sounds trivial, doesn’t it? Ha! forget about it. It’s not trivial at all. It took me about 5 minutes to cross the 15 metres needed to get back into the reception hall.
On my journey through the abundance of feet, palms and other bodily parts so crowdedly infesting the front, I asked a few people for permission to excuse me while I make my way through them. I was genuinely amazed to find out that some of these people recognized me and informed me that they’re following this blog. You know, sometimes I wonder how many people actually follow the nonsense I’m writing… if only there was a way to know.
(Thanks, pals, for letting me pass)
Another €0.40 went through the toilets in order to get to the toilets (Yes, guys. No “restroom” like in the USA, no “washroom” like in Canada. TOILETS. Welcome to Europe) and now came the toughest mission of them all: find my way from the reception hall into my original location.
The venue holds 7,000, and I estimate that about half of them were at the general admission area (there are seated locations as well; it’s a sports arena). You can only imagine what it is like to make your way back to the best spot in the arena. It’s mayhem. Some people believed my begging eyes, asking them oh so kindly to allow me to rejoin my friends; one individual actually looked at me begging and simply turned away, refusing to let me move. After 15 (!) minutes, I finally made it back to my spot after a whole line of individuals literally cleared the way as they identified me from my outward journey.
Pheeeeeeeeew. I am never doing that again.
(Thanks, Nelly, for your support; you may want to know, though, that I did not show your plea to any of the people I passed through)
By the time I made it to the front, the hall was packed with people. A few minutes later, the lights went down and the band took the stage.
The atmosphere of a standing concert, especially when you’re at the very front, is very, very different from the atmosphere of a seated concert. The discomfort of the pre‐concert procedures (waiting, toilet‐avoidance etc) is compensated for by a totally different audience participation.
First, the audience was loud. The loudest so far, even counting the first three nights of the Royal Albert Hall series. Knopfler is extremely well received in Belgium—and, in fact, all over Europe. If you were to run some statistics on Knopfler concertgoers, the first thing you would notice is the average and median age of the audience—much younger here than in North America.
Second, the heat. Oh Lord, the heat. It was hot in this inadequately‐ventilated venue, and humidity was somewhere at the area of 2,000,000 percent. I recall swimming in dryer pools. All band members (except for Mark who had a strategically‐positioned fan aimed directly at his face) were sweating as if they were inside a sauna box that was just crossing the atmosphere. I really, really, really have no idea how, for example, John McCusker could play so beautifully and gently during Marbletown while in such condition. Seriously, John, hats off to you.
The concert went very well—rocking the Belgian audience. The band appeared fresh (despite the poor humidity & temperature conditions), Mark—still seated—was evidently pleased with the great reception on behalf of the audience.
Why Aye Man has been resurrected and was very fun to listen to. Also, as Prairie Wedding probably doesn’t strike well as a standing‐audience song, Cleaning My Gun came instead and, I tell you, listening to this piece while standing with thousands of other rocking & sweating fans is an absolute thrill.
At some point, this object has been thrown onto the stage from the left‐hand side of the arena.
Weird. I was expecting a bra… clearly not a doggy doll.
Setlist‐wise, the absence of Piper to the End was very surprising as this song has been played in all concerts prior to that. In fact, I believe that this is the only concert to only feature two songs from Get Lucky (Border Reiver & Cleaning My Gun).
A short encore this time around—two songs, to conclude a fantastic show.
After the concert, a quick meal at a nearby restaurant—some pita and gyros, nothing too heavy. I was starving. Maarten & Ingrid tagged along, was a lot of fun.
Ingrid agreed to drive me back to my hotel on her way back home.
Thanks Maarten & Ingrid for your company—was a pleasure!
Signing off this post while waiting for the ICE (Inter‐City Express) train from Brussels‐Nord to Frankfurt. The time is 12:10pm; I have no idea when I’ll get to upload this post as I haven’t yet purchased a mobile Internet USB stick (will wait till I get to Frankfurt to buy it).