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Ten things I learned in Antwerp, Belgium…

Here it is, my usual list of ten things I learned on my latest trip. I like to do these to remind myself that travel is a way to expand one’s mind, pick up new knowledge, meet new people, and broaden perspectives. I also find that the ten things I learned posts are more likely to be read than my blow by blow accounts of our travels, especially since we tend to do a lot of eating and drinking instead of visiting exhibits. So, here goes… ten things I learned in Antwerp, Belgium.

10. Antwerp is a major port city.

Antwerp is located on the Scheldt River, and it’s partially located in the City of Antwerp and the Province of East Flanders. It is Europe’s second largest seaport, after Rotterdam.

Het Steen, a building that has been used many ways… including as a cruise terminal.

9. You can’t come to Antwerp and not learn about A Dog of Flanders.

I’m sorry to admit that I had not heard of A Dog of Flanders before we visited Antwerp. The novella was written by the English author, Marie Louise de la Ramée (also known as Ouida), and it was partly based on Antwerp. The story is about a poor boy named Nello and his dog, Patrasch, who were very loyal to each other. Ouida’s book was very popular in Asia and Russia, was made into a film, and translated into different languages. Because of the book’s popularity, there are two monuments in Belgium dedicated to Nello and Patrasch. One of the monuments is located in Antwerp, and you can’t miss it if you go to the cathedral.

A boy and his beloved dog.

8. Antwerp is famous for diamonds.

One of the reasons we visited Antwerp is because Bill thought maybe we’d shop for a diamond, since it was my 50th birthday. But we ended up skipping the diamond shopping, having been warned by Trip Advisor reviews. 🙂 Nevertheless, I had no idea diamonds were notable in Antwerp before I visited there. Maybe we’ll still shop for a rock, since this year we will also celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary.

7. Antwerp is very LGBTQ friendly.

Which isn’t to say that Europe, as a whole, isn’t friendly to the LGBTQ community. But I saw signs that Antwerp is especially open to people of all orientations. I liked that about Antwerp.

6. It’s also very artist friendly!

Perhaps because it’s such an “open-minded” place, Antwerp is also home to a lot of artists and fashionistas. We saw all sorts of awesome fashion interpretations during our visit, and I saw more than a couple of art galleries I wouldn’t have minded exploring.

5. And there’s lots of food to suit every taste!

We found exotic cuisines ranging from Israeli to Peruvian-Japanese! And, of course, there was also the usual stuff, like Italian food, Greek food, Thai food, and Belgian food. There’s something for everyone.

Israeli food.

4. COVID rules are pretty relaxed.

Actually, I would say they’re non-existent. Masks are recommended, but aren’t required, on trains or buses, nor did I see anyone wearing them voluntarily. If COVID is a worry for you, you might want to keep this in mind. We were not asked about our vaccines, except in a casual conversation with the hotel staff who was comparing rules in Germany to rules elsewhere.

3. Not all stores take Visa (or American credit cards).

We should have known better, given that we live in Germany, and we don’t have European credit cards. A lot of European destinations have gone cashless, so we have gone that way ourselves. But if you carry an American card, you might want to bring euros with you, just in case.

2. Bill rode his first ferris wheel in Antwerp.

Bill is afraid of heights, so before my birthday trip, he never voluntarily took a ride in a ferris wheel. I did not know, as we were looking at Antwerp from the top of the wheel, that this was his very first time on such a ride. He had a good time. I’m sure it comforted him that the car was enclosed, though.

Bill lost his ferris wheel virginity here.

1. You have to pay to see the Cathedral of Our Lady if you aren’t from Antwerp…

However, it’s worth the price of admission if you like art. The cathedral is loaded with paintings, sculptures, and relics, as well as beautiful stained glass windows and a fascinating crypt. And, when you’re finished gawking at all of the beautiful art, you can visit the bistro, enjoy a beer or a coffee in the courtyard, and use the toilet. That’s a pretty big deal.

One of many paintings you can see at the cathedral!

So… there you have it. We had a great time in Antwerp and I hope we can visit again. It was a great place for me to turn 50. I found many friendly locals who were willing to celebrate with me! As long as you aren’t driving– or you have a very good GPS that can get you where you need to go– it’s a total pleasure. Driving in Antwerp can be hellish if you don’t have accurate GPS. But once you park, good times are to be had! I can still say that I’ve never had a bad time in Belgium.

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advice, Germany, money

USAA inconveniences and disappoints me yet again. And PenFed is not much better.

Once again, I had to call USAA about my card. This time, it was my debit card, which I tried to use to purchase a couple of sweaters from Novica.com. Granted, it was more than I would usually spend on sweaters… about $350. Well, USAA immediately declined that charge, which led to my spending over an hour trying to find the right phone number to contact someone who could fix my issue.

When I finally did get someone on the phone, I was admittedly pretty annoyed. But to his credit, he did manage to correct the problem, even though now I don’t want to try to use my cards for fear of having to make another phone call. USAA used to send texts to my cell phone when a suspicious charge came up. That way, I could authorize charges without having to be inconvenienced. But I guess USAA doesn’t want to pay for international texts now… so that means a significant decline in their service level for their customers who are overseas. I tried to use USAA’s worthless bot on their site, which only directed me to general articles that weren’t very helpful at all.

I also noticed that they no longer call me Mrs. Instead, they use my given name, which always makes me cringe. It’s not that I want to be called Mrs., per se. It’s more that I think that if you don’t know what name a person normally goes by, you don’t know them well enough to address them by their first name. Using the honorific is also a sign of respect… although I imagine respect is becoming a foreign concept in some companies.

At least this time, I didn’t have to use my cell phone. Last week, I had to call on my cell, which will result in international roaming charges. I did call on the cell the first time I spoke to someone this morning– it was the number on the “urgent” email I got, which led to the credit card services office. I went through the whole security rigamarole, only to be told that the phone number I used– the one USAA put in their email to me– was for the wrong office. Since I was trying to use my debit card, they transferred me to checking. Of course, no one was working because it’s Saturday and, at the time of my call, it was very early in the morning in Texas.

Later on today, I will be calling PenFed, because I think they blocked my credit card last weekend as I was trying to book our upcoming trip. I managed to book two places before the block kicked in. I didn’t get an email from them, but they didn’t let me use the card at Novica, either, and it says in my account I have to call them for the “status” of my credit card… even though I’ve already almost paid off last week’s big charges for our trip. Unlike USAA, it appears that no one at PenFed works on Saturday until later. So that will be fun. I may be somewhat less pissed off by that time.

I really think these overzealous fraud protections are very bad for business. Now, I am reluctant to use my credit cards. Novica will miss out on a generous sale, until I am feeling more up to buying something… and that might not be anytime soon. I get that international calls are expensive, but if I don’t want to use my credit cards, that will cost USAA money, too. They should at least make it so people can take care of these issues online, without having to call across several time zones and sit in phone queues on the weekends.

It’s cold and cloudy today, and we have some things to take care of before we take our trip. I did manage to set up travel alerts, so MAYBE if I use the cards next week, they won’t get automatically declined. There is something to be said for using cash, even if a lot of businesses, even in Germany, are moving away from cash, thanks to COVID.

I don’t know if we’ll do anything today, besides some chores that need doing. Next week, there will be some action on the blog… I hope.

Just as I was about to close this post, I got an automated phone call from USAA to verify the transactions… if I had gotten that call before they shut off my card, this whole gripe could have been avoided. USAA really needs to step up its game. Their policies are inconvenient and annoying, especially for people overseas.

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money, trip planning

Trip planning and “lunner” at La Fonte…

Well, it’s finally all settled. Bill and I are going on vacation in about ten days. I wasted most of today planning our upcoming adventure to Austria, Slovenia, and Croatia. But it wasn’t without significant ass pain. Sorry, I know this is a first world problem. It’s just that sometimes it’s a pain in the butt to have American credit cards when you live in Europe.

The ass pain started when Bill let me know that the dogs are confirmed at the dog pension. In the past, we have taken our dogs with us on longer trips, but that was when we had Zane, who was a beagle. Noyzi is a big guy and needs a lot of room. Also, it’s just a lot easier traveling with one species. So, once we got the boys’ lodging confirmed, I went to work.

I knew I wanted to go to Plitvice Lakes in Croatia. That’s about eleven hours’ drive from Wiesbaden. I’ve been wanting to go there for ages, and it’s about the end of the vacation season. After November 1, things kind of go to sleep. I knew it would be a stretch to try to go to Plitvice without breaking up the trip. Bill had noticed Austria’s fair city of Graz, which does look really appealing. But that’s at least eight hours away without any traffic or stops, and we have to drop off the dogs before we set off, which we can’t do until about 9:00am. I knew we would get in super late, and Bill would be weird and tired if we tried to make Graz in one day.

So, I ended up booking up at a hotel in Wels, Austria. Or, at least I tried. I found a well regarded and highly rated place in Wels. I tried to book directly from the hotel’s Web site. It had a rather aggressive pop up system. But, as I was booking, I got sent to a site called Saferpay, which was supposed to make my card transaction “safer” somehow. It timed out or something. My reservation didn’t go through properly, and Bill had to book with his card.

Then, I went on Booking.com and booked a beautiful house in a village near Plitvice Lakes. I tried to use my USAA card for that booking and was immediately declined. PenFed let me book that place, and the next place, near Lake Bohinj in Slovenia. But when I tried to book our last place, in Salzburg, Austria, PenFed declined my charges, too.

In fairness, I don’t use my credit cards much. I once had a lot of credit card debt and paid it all off. I don’t want to get back into credit card debt again, so I usually use my debit card for everything. I use my credit cards mostly for big purchases and trips. Consequently, I often get these problems when I actually use credit, but USAA usually sends an alert to my phone, which allows me to accept or decline charges. This time, I got an email letting me know I had to call USAA… and it came about an hour after everything was settled. Bill and I were having a very late lunch, which I badly needed, because I was hungry and in a FOUL mood.

La Fonte is our neighborhood Italian restaurant, affiliated with the Sportsplatz. We’ve only eaten there a few times, mainly due to COVID. Today, we dined in, and we had to prove we were vaccinated. I still got a dirty look from another patron. He probably wondered why Americans were there, even though there are a number of Americans living in Breckenheim.

I ordered Montepulciano and Tortellini al Forno, which is with cream sauce, ham, and cheese. Bill ordered fettuccini with cream sauce and shrimp. The dish brought out to me was baked rigatoni with Bolognese sauce. We told the waitress, who apologized and brought out my correct order after about twenty minutes. I did taste Bill’s dish. Next time, I’m having what he had… not because mine wasn’t good, but because I liked what he had better.

I might have enjoyed dessert, but we were sitting in the outdoor area, which is next to the smoking section. They left the door to the smoking section open, so the smoke wafted into where we were sitting and clogged up my nose. Plus, as we were eating, I got that email from USAA, which really annoyed me. We paid about 43 euros for lunch, and I think we should come back to La Fonte more often. It really is a nice place, and they were doing a brisk business today. They don’t take a pause, either. We need to enjoy lunch there when I’m not preoccupied with my credit cards. Next time, we’ll sit inside the restaurant, away from the smokers.

When we got home, I took a quick shower and then Skyped USAA. I spent 40 worthless minutes waiting until the representative said I needed to call back on my cell phone. The whole time, I kept hearing the same insanity inducing hold “song”, which if you’re a musical person, like I am, is MADDENING.

After the woman told me she couldn’t help, I hung up with her and called on my cell phone. Supposedly, you can call collect if you’re overseas, but only if you’re on a landline. We don’t have a landline.

So I called… and this time, after about 8 minutes of waiting, I got someone much more competent. I explained what happened, and she removed the block. We don’t know why USAA reacted the way it did, and why they didn’t send me a text to allow me to confirm or deny the charges. But now that card, at least, is unblocked. As for PenFed, I’m not sure if that card is blocked. But it did allow me to book the bulk of our stay in the Balkans, so I’m happy enough with that.

I’m not calling them today, though. Now, I need a drink and some good music… And it’s time to plan all of the things we’re going to do, because I have a feeling we’re going to have a blast.

Lake Bohinj was suggested to us in May 2016 by several Slovenians, when we visited Lake Bled. I was overwhelmed by how many vacation homes there are there. It took forever to choose one, but I think I chose one that will make us happy for four nights.

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anecdotes

The IKEA trip from Hell…

After Bill and I took a long walk with our dogs today, I decided I really wanted to purchase some things to make our new home more homey.  I asked him if he wanted to go to IKEA.  If I recall correctly, we had only been to the IKEA in Sindelfingen once or twice last time we were here. I remembered it was a hellish experience because it was extremely packed with people.  Also, I’m not generally a big fan of IKEA products.  I know they’re cheap and functional, but they aren’t really my style.  We went to the one in Northern Virginia once or twice and it was equally obnoxious and I didn’t like going there because it meant that later we’d be putting together furniture, one of my least favorite activities.

Nevertheless, I wanted to buy rugs and drapes and maybe a few things to help dampen the noise in our very echoey new home.  We went to IKEA and proceeded to have a very frustrating, irritating, and ultimately unsatisfying shopping experience.  In fact, I was so annoyed by the end of our trip there that I declared IKEA another entry to my retail store shit list.  It now joins Wal-Mart and several chain restaurants as a store I don’t care to spend money at ever again.

Perhaps I should have taken this overflowing ashtray as an omen…

 

The first part of our shopping venture was not entirely pleasant, but compared to the rest of it, it was quite successful.  I was hungry when we walked into the store after driving up the spiral drive to the parking lot.  I knew that if I didn’t eat something, I’d likely get very crabby and impatient.  Based on the crowds at IKEA today, I knew I’d eventually become bitchy anyway… but I wanted to forestall that for as long as possible.  For the first time ever, Bill and I stopped by the cafeteria at IKEA and had lunch.  After standing in a crowded queue and pushing through the cashier line, we both had Swedish meatballs with fries and lingonberry sauce and washed our lunches down with IKEA beer.

This lager was not bad at all, especially for 1.90 euros.

Bill enjoyed the dark version.  I think I liked it better, too.

 

Lunch was pretty good and kind of entertaining, as I watched people use their coffee cups (50 cents) to get soda (1 euro) and free refills.  Once we were appropriately fueled, we started looking for the “start”.  You know, when you go to IKEA, there’s a path you follow as it takes you through the showroom.  Bill went to find a buggy, but it turns out you don’t really need one until you get to the first floor, which is where the warehouse and cashiers are.  You’re supposed to mark down the things you like as you walk through the showroom and then pick them up right before you go to the cash register.  There are a few things you can pick up in the showroom, but by and large, you don’t need anything more than a big yellow bag that they provide for that.  If you like the bag, they’ll let you buy it.

Let me just say right off the bat, I was not too impressed by how this store looked.  Everything was in disarray and had been well picked over by the masses.  I guess when a store is as crowded as IKEA is on the weekend, it kind of stands to reason that it’s going to look shitty.  By the time an associate is done straightening up the mess, someone else comes through and messes it up again.  I’ve been there and done that when I worked retail years ago and I know how it goes.  But it didn’t look like the IKEA staff members were doing much to keep things looking neat and tidy or well stocked.

After about two stressful hours trying to figure things out, trying to find things creatively reshelved by people, and dodging the aggressive crowds, we ended up with a cart full of “essentials”.  Bill had been warned that IKEA doesn’t take American credit cards, which we took to mean the ones with magnetic strips.  While that’s annoying, it’s not something we aren’t used to.  Bill had gotten a new card with a chip in it, though he did not take my advice and start an account with a German bank.  Instead, he opened an account at the Community Bank on post, which gave him a Visa debit card with a chip and pin instead of a strip.

Bill approached the customer service desk to ask about the VAT form, which would allow us to get the tax back on our purchase.  We were told to pay first.  We got in a long line, where the masses pushed us forward in an inexorable advance toward getting the hell out of the madhouse.  Then, once we unloaded almost 500 euros worth of the cheap IKEA crap we’d selected, Bill was informed that none of his cards work at IKEA.  They take cash or an EC card, which is a European debit card.  Again, had he listened to me and gotten a German bank account, he probably would have had an EC card.  But he didn’t, so the cashier sent him to the ATM to get enough cash to cover the bill.  Off Bill went… leaving me to wait with the big load of stuff I’d collected during our very stressful shopping trip.

Several long minutes later, he came back to tell me that the ATM machine also would not accept any of his cards.  He talked to the customer service guy again, who said the machines usually didn’t reject American cards.  So Bill tried and failed again, even though there was plenty of money in the account to handle the amount he was requesting.  We ended up leaving the store very pissed off and empty-handed.  To make matters worse, the elevators don’t have call buttons, so you end up standing around, waiting for the doors to open.  We were confused by that, as were quite a few locals.  After waiting for several minutes to get the appropriate elevator to the parking lot, we finally gave up and took the stairs.  My back hurt; I was feeling very grumpy and exasperated; and I just wanted to get the fuck out of there ASAP.

Last time we were at IKEA, it was at the same store in Sindelfingen and we paid in cash.  This time, Bill wanted to use a card because he wasn’t sure how much cash we’d need.  I’m not sure why IKEA is so hard nosed about credit cards, especially since we have used them in American IKEA stores and it is a big, international company.  Maybe they don’t want to have to pay the fees associated with Master Card or Visa because it will affect their bottom line.  And that’s fine.  All I know is that they could have sold us about 500 euros worth of stuff today.  Now they will be selling us nothing, because I refuse to go back to IKEA.  I will do my shopping at stores that are prepared to handle payment with less hassle and offer a shopping experience that doesn’t make me need blood pressure meds or Valium.

Incidentally, as soon as we got back home, I went to Amazon.de and ordered three major appliances that I could have bought from IKEA had they not been such a huge pain in my ass today.  I’m pretty disgusted, but fortunately there are plenty of other places to spend money in Germany.

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