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Ghent, but not Brussels

This is the third and final part of a narrative of a trip to the Flanders region of Belgium that my wife Frances and I took in September 2018. This was an independent trip, not a package tour. It was our third visit to Belgium. Our aim was to visit the towns where my paternal grandparents lived, Kortrijk and Waregem. In addition, we planned to visit Ghent, a city we had read about but missed in our previous trips. Our plan was to spend three nights each in Kortijk and Waregem, four nights in Ghent, and two in Brussels before returning home to Alexandria, Virginia. The stop in Brussels was planned for a visit to the Horta (Art Nouveau) Museum and some shopping. However, our plans had to be altered, as you will see.

The first two parts of the narrative can be found at:
Three Days in Kortrijk, Belgium (September 2018)
Waregem, Ieper, and Oudenaarde, Belgium

September 6, 2018 (Waregem to Ghent)
We ate our last breakfast in Waregem; I managed to toast the waffles without burning them this time. Then we headed to the railway station for our trip to Ghent. I tried to buy the tickets from a machine this time, but it didn’t like my credit card. We resorted to buying them from the humans at the counter, who did. The trip to Ghent was short and uneventful. The Ghent station is large and old, decorated with paintings and flourishes from the time when rail travel was king. We agreed that we should come back later to take some photos. Upon leaving the station, it was clear that we had arrived in a substantial city. There were tram tracks crisscrossing around us and bus stops around the street. There were also homeless people and panhandlers at the station door and in the little park in front.

We set off to find the B&B Entrenous. We didn’t have much trouble once we identified which of the streets radiating from the station was the one we needed. The B&B was a moderate distance, down a little side street. After being buzzed in, we were greeted by Christine, a professional photographer who runs the B&B with her son Jeroen. She showed us the sunny breakfast room and briefed us on how the B&B is run. The room wasn’t ready yet, it being well before check-in time. We pulled our cameras from our backpacks and went out to have a look around.

The B&B is convenient to Gent-Sint-Pieters railway station, but that means it’s a substantial walk to the center of the city. Although there was a tram stop right around the corner, we decided to walk so that we could see more. The route gave way from everyday business and residential buildings to high-end shops. The street crossed canals, and we were clearly walking along a main tram route. As we neared the center, we could see the medieval city laid out before us: three large churches (St. Michael’s, St. Nicholas’, and St. Bavo’s), the stadhuis, the Belfort, the castle looming in the back, and all of the medieval row houses on the market square and river banks. The ground floors of these were lined with cafes and bars, as in all the towns we visited.

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As usual, our first destination was the TI. Also as usual, it was more difficult to find than it should have been. I don’t know what came over me, but the frustration of wandering around really got to me. I came close to having a meltdown. We found it just in time, and the feelings dissipated as quickly as they had come. The Ghent TI is large as these things go. The staff was helpful. We decided to buy Ghent Passes. I don’t think they saved us any money, but they did save us the trouble of paying admission at each stop. We also got free public transit for two days. We stopped in a café along the river for a bit of lunch. I had a croque madam, which is similar to a croque monsieur, with the addition of fried egg. It was accompanied by a little salad and beer.

We had intended to walk around and look at the city. However, it started to rain a few minutes after we left the café (this is Belgium, after all). Uncharacteristically, we had neglected to bring along so much as an umbrella. So, we decided to duck into the castle (Gravensteen), thus activating our passes on entry.

I have already mentioned Charles V and his connection with Flanders and his birthplace, Ghent. Charles was both King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor. This made him ruler over a vast chunk of “western civilization,” including Spain, Austria, parts of what are now Italy and Germany, the Spanish empire in the Americas, and the Spanish Netherlands. This last included what is now both the Netherlands and Belgium. Although born in Ghent, Charles was more of a Spaniard (Carlos Quinto, or Carlos Once, depending on which crown you mean) than anything else. The Low Countries were a distant and restive peripheral territory. Its inhabitants were always causing trouble and pushing against rule from Madrid. The Gravensteen was constructed to keep Ghent under control, not to protect the city from invasion. It was known locally as “The Spanish Castle.”

The self-guided tour takes you through much of the castle, from the cellars to the battements, although not in that order. You see interior rooms, the chapel, the foundations, the guard towers, courtyard, and more. The roof gave us the first of several panoramas of the city (Ghent has many high vantage points). It wasn’t very crowded; we were not engulfed by tour groups. We spent a good two hours and took many photos. The gift shop was disappointing. It was more oriented toward younger visitors, with medieval-themed toys. I did pick up a little magnetic bookmark.

By the time we left the castle, it was late in the afternoon. We walked back to the B&B to see our room and unpack. The room was about the usual size: a bit cramped, but enough space for us to move past each other. We had enough storage for our clothes and spare outlets to recharge our cameras. The toilet was in a separate room from the washstand and shower (all en suite). We unpacked and then set out to find some dinner.

This time we took the tram towards the center of town. It was easy. All we had to do was show our passes when we boarded. As in Waregem, we discovered that there are disadvantages to traveling in the “shoulder season.” The first restaurant we tried (chosen from a guidebook) was closed, because the staff was on holiday. We chose a bistro on the riverfront, near the one where we had lunch. I had beef carbonnade, which is a Flemish specialty. After that, we took the tram back to the B&B. We spent some time planning the next day’s activities before calling it a night.

Walking miles: 8.2

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Friday, September 7, 2018 (Ghent)

Breakfast at the B&B was substantial. We had wheat rolls, eggs and bacon cooked to order, orange juice, coffee, Nutella, and Biscoff cookies (although not spread).

Our plan for the day was to look at some of the sights on the southern side of town, near the B&B. We circled around toward the Fine Arts Museum. First we came across Prudens Van Duyseplein, a little circle of greener that features a remarkably large tree—so large that it is marked on the tourist map. Further east we found St. Pietersplein, the site of Our Lady of St. Peter’s Church (confusing name!) and St. Peter’s Abbey (now closed). The complex also includes a natural history museum aimed at children. We didn’t go inside, but we took some photos of the “fossil skeletons” of dragons and sea monsters outside.

From there we went a little south and east to the arts museum, known locally as the MSK (Museum voor Schone Kunsten). We spent a good three hours there. It is full of old masters, such as Bruegel, Bosch, Van Dyke, and Rembrandt. It also has more recent works, although most of those are in the museum of contemporary art—the SMAK—next door. At one point we had to thread our way through an art class that was encamped in one of the galleries. In another gallery there was a show of quirky modern pieces by Patrick Van Caeckenbergh, which contrasted oddly with the Renaissance paintings on the walls. A highlight of the visit was watching the restoration work on the Ghent Altarpiece. The restorers are visible through a wall-size window, and the work they are doing is displayed on video screens in real time. There is also a good video guide to the panels of the altarpiece, open and closed, explaining what each represents. We were glad to have this background when we saw the original the following day. Before leaving the MSK, we stopped for lunch in the posh little café. We had pumpkin soup with bread, butter, and beer.

After leaving MSK, we made our way through Citadel Park, pausing to look at the landscaping, band shell, monuments, and so on. Emerging from the northwest corner of the park, we continued in that direction, crossing the Leie to the City Museum, or STAM (Stadmuseum Ghent). The first exhibit is a spectacular map of the region that occupies an enormous room. You have to put special covers on your shoes so that you can walk around on it. The center is a three-dimensional model of the city, while around it are projections of the outlying areas. The walls have running multimedia displays of statistics and activities in the city. The rest of the museum takes a chronological approach to the city, covering political and economic developments as well as the conditions of everyday life. The building itself is part of the story. Most of the exhibits are crammed with artifacts, which is how I like museums. It was not difficult for English-speaking visitors to understand, with the help of audio guides.

After leaving STAM, we stopped in the café for a cappuccino and then took the tram back to the center. We poked around looking for souvenirs, but most of the shops had the same trinkets you can find anywhere in Europe, but with “Gent” printed on them. We stopped for dinner at the Belfort Stadcafe, which, as the name implies, is near the Belfort tower. It was clearly geared to tourists, with menus in several languages. I had barbecued ribs with frites—not exactly Belgian cuisine, but still good. That was enough for the day; we returned to the B&B by tram.

Walking miles: 4.2.

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Saturday, September 8, 2018 (Ghent)

We planned to use this day to see the Ghent Altarpiece at St. Bavo’s and the climb the Belfort. However, those didn’t open until 10:00, and so we decided to revisit the railway station. After a breakfast similar to the previous day’s, we took our cameras to have another look. The station is a good example of 19th-20th Century commercial art. The walls and ceilings are painted and sculpted in a manner reminiscent of churches and civic buildings of earlier eras. However, the religious or heraldic symbols are replaced by railway trains and the monogram of the Belgian Rail Company. As with the battlefield paintings in Kortrijk and the Ghent Altarpiece, the background paintings showed the buildings of the city as of the time of their creation. We had a good time trying to get the right angles, exposures, and details—all the while trying to stay out of the way of the passengers and workers. I imagine that we were still the objects of some exasperation or amusement (“tourists!”). At least it was a Saturday, without the crush of commuters.

Having completed that visit, we took the tram to the center of town and walked to St. Bavo’s. Along the way we noticed a wedding party outside the Belfort having its picture taken. We were luckily to arrive at St. Bavo’s when we did. For a few blissful minutes, we were alone with the Ghent Altarpiece. It is a magnificent and intricate testament to medieval piety. We had just enough time to examine the details of the piece before more visitors started pouring in.

The word “awesome” is used far too much these days. However, the architects of the great cathedrals aimed for just that: to fill the visitors with awe. The builders of St. Baavo’s knew their business. I left my camera in my case so that I could drink it all in. My poor skills would not have been able to capture what I saw. The cathedral has a lower level which allows one to see some of the foundations and crypts. It also contains exhibit cases showing historical vestments and altar vessels, such as monstrances and chalices.

By this time, the crowds had been building up. While it was by no means the crush you would see in Paris or Prague, the atmosphere was becoming less serene. We stopped in the small but well-stocked gift shop. I think that was where I bought a book about the history and details of the altarpiece (I may have done that at MSK). We left the cathedral and crossed the plaza to the Belfort.

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Saturday, September 8, 2018 (Ghent)--continued

The Belfort is a civic structure, not ecclesiastical. Cities were the centers of political power in the Spanish Netherlands, and the bell towers and stadhuises were symbols of that power (as we already saw in Kortrijk and Oudenaarde). Ghent’s Belfort stands grandly between St. Bavo’s and St. Nicholas’, showing the Church that the civic power is a force to be reckoned with.

Visiting a belfort involves climbing a lot of stairs. There is an elevator nowadays, but we did most of the ascent the hard way. Each floor holds exhibits about the history of the tower and the bells. We got a close look at the metal dragons that once perched on the pinnacle of the tower. I watched a fascinating video show how the bells were made. One of the uppermost floors holds the mechanism that controls the bell chimes. It looks like an enormous music box: a rotating metal drum six or eight feet in diameter set with pegs that cause the different bells to ring. Up from there, the stairs get steep and narrow, without much to catch you on the open side. You have to negotiate your passage with people headed in the opposite direction.

Once you get to the top, there are narrow balconies on the four sides of the tower. The parapet is about waist high, with open space above that. Again, you have to work around other visitors in the same space. The narrow doors at each corner are another bottleneck. Of course, you go up there for the view. In one direction, you have the tower of St. Bavo’s. On the opposite side, you have the nave of St. Nicholas’. On the other sides you have the Gravensteen and the sweep of the city. I made a complete circuit and then joined Fran, who had decided not to go out. Just as I did so, the metal drum started turning, and we were treated to a chorus of bells not far above us.

After squeezing down past the visitors on their way up, we left the Belfort and stopped for lunch at a café called Passion, where I had a ham and cheese club, with the usual frites, beer, and a small salad. Then we went into St. Nicholas’. While not as impressive as St. Bavo’s, it has a remarkable Baroque interior, with wonderful extravagance. As we went around the outside of the church, we realized that only about half of it is now used as a house of worship. The doors on the Korenmarkt side lead into a hall—apparently cut out of the nave—filled with used book sellers. We walked through it for a while. They were selling everything from scientific volumes to comic books. Most were in Dutch, but there were many in English or French. We didn’t buy anything, although we were tempted.

We spent the afternoon just wandering around, roughly north and west of the center. We found a souvenir shop run by a little old lady, where Fran found a purse and scarf while I bought a t-shirt and some magnets. She put each magnet into its own little paper bag and then taped a Belgian flag over each. At some point in our wandering we stopped for a Belgian waffle with ice cream and cappuccino.

Eventually we took the tram back to the B&B to reorganize and rest a bit. Then we went back downtown for dinner, winding up at Passion again. This time I had rabbit, remembering my Flemish grandmother who raised them for food. That was it for the day.

Walking miles: 5.3.

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Sunday, September 9, 2018 (Ghent)

We had the same sort of breakfast the next morning. Jeroen put packets of Nutella on our table, having observed our preference. This morning we shared the breakfast room with a Dutch-speaking couple.

Our first destination was the Museum of Industry, Labor, and Textiles, known as MIAT. This involved taking the tram back to the Korenmarkt and then walking northeast, first along the Leie and then through some twisty-wisty streets. It was a pleasant walk, especially along the river, early on a Sunday morning with few people around.

We had been expecting something like the textile museum in Kortrijk, but it turned out to have a much broader scope. While the museum does cover the textile industry in detail, it also covers printing and graphic design. It traces the changing working conditions of the labor force and the material circumstances of everyday life. These themes add up to a lot of artifacts. There is printing equipment from the early days of typesetting through computer graphics. Similarly, the textile section goes from the crude and dangerous hand-processing of flax through mechanized spinning, dyeing, and weaving. The development of home appliances and entertainment is depicted: washing machines, radios, television sets, home computers, and more. Some of the equipment is in working order. While we were there, they started up one of the spinning machines. Unfortunately, the discussion was in Dutch, and so we missed that. The machine was also very loud. Another nice touch of the museum was that one of the landings on the upper floor has windows that give a panorama of the city from the north. The window is painted with labeled outlines of the major landmarks so that you can tell what you are looking at. The museum had no shop, because it was in the middle of renovation work.

We retraced our route through the center of the city and then went further south to the Kouterplein, to visit the Sunday flower market. The plaza was filled with booths selling all sorts of plants, edible as well as ornamental, plus tools and garden paraphernalia. Fran is the professional gardener. It was more technically interesting to her, as she understood what we were looking at. For me, it was pretty displays. I took pictures of the flowers and the hub-bub surrounding them. Of course, we couldn’t buy anything to take home with us.

We walked back to Korenmarkt and stopped for lunch at a Pan Quotidien near St. Nicholas’. I had a chicken tartine with fruit beer, and Fran had the tuna (a point which may be significant in the light of later events). We watched the crowds streaming past and a guy making giant soap bubbles. After lunch, we went to look at the stadhuis, but it was closed on Sundays. Instead, we went to look at Graffiti Alley, which Ghent has set aside to protect the rest of the city. I was not impressed. I was expecting some creative wall art, but it was just mundane tagging. We did encounter some tour groups squeezing through.

After that, we ran out of steam. We sat down by the river just to watch the boats and tourists. There were tour boats, motor boats, kayaks, canoes, and an elderly couple on paddleboards. People around us were taking selfies. Crews were setting up a floating stage for an event. After an hour or so, we hunted up the Australian Homemade Ice Cream store (a Belgian chain), but it was closed. So, we took the tram back to the B&B. We shared the car with a group of Americans talking loudly about this and that. It may have been simply because I could understand what they were saying (unlike Dutch chatter), but they got on my nerves.

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Sunday, September 9, 2018 (Ghent)--Continued

The restaurant where we had intended to dine was closed. This was certainly a common experience of this trip! Instead, we found another near the north end of the Korenmarkt. We took an outside table, and I ordered pork brochette. A woman at a nearby table was talking loudly in an Australian accent. In the back, near the entrance to the restaurant building, an elderly woman (that is, older than us) was holding forth in Dutch. She seemed to be a regular.

When our orders arrived, Fran looked at her plate and said that she wasn’t feeling well and couldn’t eat anything. I called the waiter over to explain the situation and ask for the bill. At that point, Fran began to pass out. The loud Australian woman, who had emergency medical training, came over to help. The older woman in the back, who was a retired nurse, also rushed over to help. They rubbed Fran’s arms to keep her awake and asked questions about her and her medical conditions.

At this point I was concerned, obviously, but not really worried. I knew that Fran didn’t have any underlying health problems. There had been similar incidents on other trips where she had felt faint. After a few hours’ sleep she was fine again. My main concern was how I was going to get her back to the B&B and up the stairs so that she could lie down until the next morning. While I was thinking this through, the manager told me that he was required to call an ambulance. I said that if it was required, then he should do that.

In due course, the ambulance pulled up on the Korenmarkt, lights flashing. The EMTs asked us questions designed to determine how serious the situation was, put Fran onto a wheeled stretcher, and loaded her into the vehicle. I climbed into the cab, and we were whisked off to a hospital at an undisclosed location in Ghent. By the time we arrived, they had determined that she was not having a heart attack or stroke, but there was “something irregular” about their test results that was a cause of concern. Now, as the person who knew her best, I was confident that there was nothing seriously wrong. However, it doesn’t do to tell medical professionals, “No, no. She’s just feeling faint. We’ll take a taxi back to our lodging, and she will be fine in the morning.” They won’t believe you—and, of course, I could have been wrong, for all my confidence. It was best to let them decide for themselves.

If you have ever been in an emergency room, you know what it was like. We were in a curtained-off bay just long and wide enough for the stretcher, a chair, and a little more for the medical personnel to squeeze in and out. People came and went, taking blood, performing tests, and saying that they would be back when they had the results. While everyone spoke English reasonably well, they would of course begin speaking in Dutch until we asked them to switch. The ubiquitous PA messages were also in Dutch, adding to our sense of strangeness. The medical personnel had a more impersonal style compared to Americans. They didn’t introduce themselves by name, only “I’m the nurse” or “I’m the cardiologist.” When they gave Fran medications, she would have to ask them what it was. “This is for pain.” “Yes, but what is it?”

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Sunday, September 9, 2018 (Ghent)--Continued

Hours went by, just waiting. We hadn’t planned on needing to fill time when we went out to dinner. We don’t carry cellphones as a matter of course. Thus, we just sat and waited. Fran spent some of it sleeping, but I tried to stay awake and ready for whatever was going to happen. I started to make a list of things that I would need to do, from packing our bags to possibly changing our flight home, depending on how long this took.

Our first indication that Fran was going to stay in the hospital came when someone asked us if we wanted a private or shared room. No medical person had told us that she was going to be admitted. Someone did come by after that and said that they wanted to run some more tests to confirm that she wasn’t having cardiac problems. In (long) retrospect, I suppose that we could have refused treatment, but that didn’t enter our heads at the time. I still don’t know whether that would have been a good or bad idea.

A woman came to wheel Fran to a room in the hospital. She was friendly and helpful. She explained all the turns in the path from the emergency room to Fran’s room and made sure I had the room number. After Fran was settled in she walked me back to the front desk so that I could get a taxi. It was about then that I learned that I was in St. Luke’s Hospital, well to the north of the city center. It was not far from the MIAT, the museum that we had visited only that morning.

I got back to the B&B after 11:00. I was pretty punchy, but I still had things to do. I sent an email to one of my sisters via Facebook, so that she could tell the rest of my family what was happening (I don’t have my family members’ contact information on my phone). I sent an email to the Brussels B&B, explaining the situation and canceling our reservation. I then tried calling my doctor’s emergency number. I was a bit surprised that my phone worked, after all the trouble I’d been having. I was also surprised that he answered—the time difference worked in my favor. I explained the situation. He said that they would probably keep Fran a couple of days. Well, that was okay, just. If it took any longer we would miss our flight home.

This was supposed to be our last night in this B&B. I knew I would have to move somewhere else in the morning. I had to pack up everything. I had no experience packing Fran’s things. I just tried to fit everything as best I could. I put her bathrobe, a change of clothes, books, and phone into her backpack to take to the hospital. I must have repacked everything three times or more. Every time I thought I was done, I found something that I had missed.
By the time I crawled into bed, exhaustion overcame worry. I slept well.

Walking miles: 5.8.

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Monday, September 10, 2018 (Still in Ghent)

The next morning, before breakfast, I explained the situation to Jeroen. I asked for his help finding lodging near the hospital and working out to get there. As I ate my breakfast, Jeroen told me that if I would rather stay put, I could move into a room that they kept for emergencies. I said that, yes, that would be a welcome simplification. He showed me the room, which was way up the stairs at the top of the townhouse. It was a bit smaller than the other room, and windowless, but it did have a skylight. The toilet was a few steps out the door, but Jeroen said that no one else would be coming up there. I had nothing to complain about. I wasn’t planning to spend much time in the room anyway.

Jeroen went on the web and found a bus route within walking distance that would take me to the hospital. He changed one of my large bills so that I could buy a ticket from the driver. I then made a quick trip across the street to an ATM for cash to pay for the room. I grabbed Fran’s backpack and set off for the bus stop.
The bus stop was at St. Pietersplein, which we had look at on our way to the art museum two days previously. I thus knew where I was going. I’m not a confident bus rider, but I didn’t have any trouble. The hospital was at the end of the route, and so there was no confusion about where to get off. Along the way, I even spotted a plaque commemorating the site where the Treaty of Ghent (which ended the War of 1812) was signed. It wasn’t clear where the hospital entrance was from the bus stop. I followed the other passengers, who lead me to it. I thought I had seen a notice that visiting hours were from 10 to 6; it was well before that. However, nobody seemed interested in my presence. I decided that if anyone stopped me, I would play dumb and do whatever they told me to do. Nobody did.

Fran was awake when I arrived. She seemed in good spirits. I gave her the backpack with her things. She couldn’t remember her phone PIN (which shows how little we use them). That meant we would be able to communicate when I wasn’t there (hospital rooms don’t have phones anymore).

There isn’t a lot to say about this day. It was mostly waiting. We had books and sudoku. I could poke around on the internet from time to time using my phone. Medical personnel came in to administer more tests. One doctor said that she could leave the next day if they didn’t find anything. I continued to make lists of what we would have to do if that didn’t happen. At some point an older woman was installed in the second bed in the room. Fran said that she thought the woman was there for tests after receiving a stent. Her husband was with her most of the time, with younger relatives appearing as well. They spoke Dutch and carried on about as one would expect a family to do in such circumstances. It got on my nerves a bit, but I can’t say it was their fault.

At lunchtime, I went down to the café—where they were already closing the hot food line. They still had lasagna available, and so that’s what I bought, with a latte to drink. It was well made but very heavy. I wasn’t feeling all that great myself, either from the stress or because I’d picked up a mild case of whatever was affecting Fran. Before rejoining her, I stopped in the winkel to buy a bus pass that was good for a few more trips.

I left Fran for the night about 6:00 PM and returned to the B&B. I didn’t feel like going out to dinner, munching on a couple of Clif bars instead. While at the B&B I got a Facebook message from my sister inviting me to call her. I did that, explaining the situation. Her partner is a physician, who had much the same view as my own doctor. I noted that the hospital had not mentioned money or insurance. My “plan,” such as it was, was to use my credit card to do whatever was necessary to get us out of there and deal with the consequences later.

Walking miles: 2.4.

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Tuesday, September 11, 2018 (Still Ghent)

The next morning, I had breakfast and took the bus to the hospital. Fran was not in her bed—out for another test. She returned in a little while. I worked out her phone PIN, which meant that we could stay in touch if necessary. We went back to waiting. Sometime during the morning, we were told that she would be released. They didn’t volunteer what their diagnosis was; we had to ask. The doctor said it was gastroenteritis. This was good news. However, it meant that we had to endure a tantalizing period of more waiting as the hospital’s procedures ground to their conclusion. Every time someone walked past the door, we wondered if the time to leave had arrived. As the hours dragged on, I began to think about how we might “self-discharge,” if somehow the official channels were not able to accomplish it by the end of the day. I was not willing to miss our flight because of some holdup in the paperwork. I later learned that Fran was thinking along the same lines.

However, our plans were unnecessary. Fran was discharged around 2:30 in the afternoon. They gave her some pain medication and a document (in Dutch) to give to our doctor when we got home. That was it. There was no mention of payment. (Months later we later received a bill in the mail. The amount was considerably less than an American hospital would have charged, and our insurance reimbursed us for most of it.)

We bought another bus pass for Fran and rode back to the B&B. Fran got a chance to change clothes and reorganize. We told Jeroen that we were going to leave early the next morning. We also gave him our bus passes, which still had balances on them. He said that he would prepare sack breakfasts for us, since we would be leaving before the regular breakfast.

After a while we decided to walk to the center of town to find some place to eat dinner. However, when we got there we realized that neither of us was hungry. Instead of a meal, we bought bowls of ice cream, eating them outside near the river. Then we walked around to take a last look at Ghent. As we went through Korenmarkt, we passed the restaurant where this all started. The retired nurse was sitting at the same table. She recognized us and came rushing out to greet us. Fran thanked her for her help. The woman was pleased to see that events had turned out well. I suppose she would have wondered whatever became of that tourist and her husband.
We walked back to the B&B, finished our preparations, and got a more peaceful sleep than either of us had experienced for a couple of days.

Walking miles: 5.3.

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Wednesday, September 12, 2018 (Ghent-Brussels-Home)

We got up at 5:00, which is actually a little later than a work day at home. We carried our bags down all those stairs. In the breakfast room we found a note from Jeroen apologizing that he had been unable to assemble the breakfast sacks.

Off we went to the railway station. The ticket window was not yet open. It tried buying tickets from a machine, but, as at Waregem, it wouldn’t accept my credit card. It would take cash, but only in small denominations, which we didn’t have. I went into the coffee shop to see if I could get change, but they said that it would use up all they had on hand, so early in the morning. Just before panic started to take hold, the ticket window opened, and the crisis was averted.

We caught our train and changed to another in Brussels Central. Our flight was a United flight booked in partnership with Brussels Airlines. We tried to check in at United, but they said it was the wrong place. Somebody walked us to a Brussels counter. They told us that was the wrong place and walked us to a different Brussels counter. We didn’t have seat assignments, because the online booking site hadn’t allowed us to select them for the return flight. The woman at the counter worked to find us good seats. She even walked away for a few minutes to ask some supervisor for permission, although I don’t know exactly for what. Eventually she assigned us seats across the aisle from each other—which is exactly what we prefer. Despite the runaround, I was impressed by the fact that the airline personnel walked us to where we were supposed to be instead of just waving, “You need to go over there.”

We went through the usual rigamarole and then passed through duty free, where each of us bought a box of Belgian chocolates to share with our coworkers. We didn’t try to use up all our euros, as we expect to return to the eurozone in a year or two. Once settled at the gate, we grabbed breakfast of cappuccino and pain chocolat. As we waited, we noticed that one of our fellow passengers was Kay Bailey Hutchison, U.S. Permanent Representative to NATO and a former U.S. Senator. She was accompanied by three or four guys in expensive suits.

The time came to board. First the gentry were “preboarded” (a verb that doesn’t make much sense when you think about it), and then the rest of us were herded on. We found ourselves way in the back, near the WC. As seats go, that’s not a bad place to be. Ambassador Hutchison was seated some rows ahead of us, still in the economy cabin, albeit in the “premium economy” seats.

The flight went as most flights do: basically uncomfortable, filling in the time as best we could. My notes say that the attendant was “loopy, but in a good way.” However, I don’t remember what I meant by that. The meal was subpar, just a little piece of chicken with some rice. We got some Biscoff cookies later.

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Wednesday, September 12, 2018 (Ghent-Brussels-Home)--Continued.

The process of getting out of Dulles was more difficult than usual. There was a problem with the mobile lounges, and we were all left standing in a packed crowd outside the entry point. When we finally were able to board, the people who got on first seemed unable to grasp the idea that they needed to move all the way to the back. Instead, they milled around near the front and forced everyone else to squeeze past. The automatic kiosks at passport control were down, and so everyone had to line up to be checked in manually. Customs, on the other hand, was more cursory than usual.

The final hurdle to getting home was finding the shuttle. Dulles is making this harder with each trip. Last time, the reservation desk had been moved to a booth outside the terminal. This time, we had to walk way down the access road (with our luggage, of course) before we found a guy with a clipboard. It was like scalping tickets. We finally did get into a blue van, which took us on a roundabout route, but it ended at home.

Walking miles: 3.1