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Updated: Oct 14, 2023

Christmas in Antwerp

I’ll be honest. Antwerp was a surprising city. For some reason I was expecting a hyper-modern harbor city. Which in some ways it is, but its historic center is well-preserved, beautiful, and teeming with life.

It’s our first Christmas in Brussels and appropriately it’s time to see the sights. With the covidpass now being implemented in most restaurants across the country and Belgium maintaining a fairly high vaccination rate, it meant that life was beginning to resume somewhat to normal. Except the masking everywhere part, which I guess is the new norm. Whatever. At least you can’t sneeze on my tomatoes at the store while wearing a mask, you dirty bastards.

A short history

Antwerp is the largest city in Flanders, and is actually the largest city in Belgium if you don’t could metropolitan areas. For those not familiar with the regions of Belgium, you can wait for my upcoming blog on why not all Belgian beer tastes of sweet ambrosia.

Antwerp IS a gigantic port. One of the top 20 in the world. It’s tough to be a big port when you’re situated right next to a few other big ass ports, like Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Hamburg, and so on. Northern Europe is good at shipping, what can I say.

Our Lady of Antwerp
Christmas tree in front of Christmas 8 euro entry Church

As such, they’ve got a thriving bar life and a well-regulated prostitution sector. Fun city.

The name comes from Dutch for “hand throwing”, which was quite a literal tag: A giant used to live there (imagine, even a giant to Flemish/Dutch people!) and used to demand a hand to allow people to cross the river. The giant then tossed the hand in the river for who knows what purpose. Today, they have a very efficient ferry system that does not require paying a hand to use.

Antwerp was a pre-Roman thing. Been around for a while. By the 16th century it was a thriving metropolis and took over the status as the main trading city from Bruges when people finally realized you can’t really sail to Bruges (more on that in a future blog). Antwerp made real bank in the colonial period, when blood diamonds and blood sugar (that is, sugar from slaves) became a thing and started to flood Europe through the port.

Our Lady of Antwerp's belltower has a creepy presence across the city

Antwerp, like the rest of Belgium, was constantly bouncing around from one occupant to another. Those who ruled the city—a cabal of globalist bankers—knew that trade worked best when the least questions were asked and as such they were welcoming to everyone. At the same time of the city's rise, the Inquisition was also rearing up in Spain and Antwerp became a haven for the Jewish diaspora running from the questions of brutal religious torturers. Because of this, Antwerp was quickly the center of Europe’s Jewish population. And so it goes.

Eventually, the Protestant Reformation came around and somehow the Protestants had trade figured out better than the Catholics (pro tip: usury actually gets money onto the market; this was one of the major Protestant reforms). So out with Antwerp, in with Amsterdam! Antwerp’s last moment to shine was when they were liberated by the Allies in WWII and served as the main point of import for Allied weaponry after their liberation. They got massively bombed by the Germans, so much of the old city has been extensively rebuilt, but their eye for architecture seems keen to keep old elements united with the new.

Fast forward, now Antwerpers are trying to pass themselves off as a fashion hub. Are they? I don’t know. I was there for a not-so-cold covid-cancelled Christmas. They’ve got good food though.

Dutch Christmas invasion

The Netherlands canceled their entire Christmas of 2021, going under a full and complete lockdown for dubious reasons. This blog isn’t about that though. The effect of the lockdown was that hordes of Dutchmen flew over the border to the Nederlandish-speaking Belgian cities of Antwerp, Bruges, and Ghent, packing in the restaurants and crowding the hotels, making a mockery of all the pandemic-control attempts the Dutch government tried.

Random night shots of the old town

The results of which were there being so much traffic for Antwerp, the police had to go out into the streets and force people to park the cars and use the trams. And Antwerp seems like a city that you should probably use a tram in anyway, as it’s definitely not optimized for car use. The entire city center has been renovated for pedestrians, and is quite beautiful because of it.

Lucky for us, we were there a day before that hazard hit.

Christmas during covid

Despite all the Dutchmen, Antwerp canceled their Christmas as well, just not in such a puritanical way. They just said no markets. Still there were pretty lights and even a skating rink. All the restaurants and bars were open, which meant people were still all packed inside, and now doubly so because of the situation in the Netherlands. Why not allow Christmas markets? Keep people outside for goodness sake!

They do use the covidpass quite diligently, which means you can at least be assured that the clientele are all vaccinated or have recovered from the covid within the last 6 months.

Random waterfront shots

Last thoughts and where to eat

I’m definitely heading back to Antwerp in better times (read: spring/summer when it’s raining less). It looks like a great city to explore, and our small one-night taste wasn’t really enough. On our endless search for seafood, we ate at Bia Mara. Hands down the best fish and chips (in and out of England) I’ve ever had. Very well-seasoned, with some outright adventurous flavors, including fried Spanish-style seabream and a tempura cod.

Some other things:

  • They used to have some canals, like Bruges and Amsterdam, but they tiled them over and used them for sewers. Now you can tour some of them (and even in a boat!).

  • Napoleon tried to expand the port and make Antwerp great again. But his ass was grassed at Waterloo before that could happen.

As some of you know, I’ve left my forever/mostofthetimehome of Tbilisi and moved to Brussels, as my wife got posted over there. Now I’m in limbo, trying to juggle the boy, finding a nursery for him, and dreaming about returning to work and being productive once more. For now though, living in an Airbnb in a mess of boxes and plastic bottles and sitting in a broken office chair, it’s hard to get back in the productive mood.

The flight over was weirdly smooth. The biggest problems strangely were leaving Georgia. Our first issue was the decision to bring 13 bags to the airport. We knew it'd be expensive, but not that expensive. I had looked up the price the night before and rather than cheerfully enjoying some Georgian wine, I spent the entire night packing, unpacking and weighing bags--and even after that mess, coming to realize when I unpacked in Brussels many suitcases were still packed with frivolous things.

bags in an airport
One of many trollies

Lesson learnt: When moving abroad, always take that extra step of shipping your stuff in cargo. The main disadvantage though is that you expose your expensive items to customs, whereas carrying it with you means you're mostly immune from that (it's a personal, non-shipping item after all).

When the Georgian passport control lady (they are curiously all ladies) saw my last entry stamp (waaay over the legal limit of one year), she looked aghast, picked up the phone and made some calls. My wife and kid had already gone through, and I knew a long time had passed when my wife’s head came poking around the corner.

“Anything wrong?”

“No, no, they’re just having a chat,” I replied.

Erm, was something wrong? I realized the issue when she finally asked, “Do you have a residence here?”

“Yeah, here,” I gave her my card. Five more minutes passed. Finally she stamped my passport and waved me on through.

The baby in the air

I was mostly worried about my son Vato’s reaction to flying. I didn’t want to be the father of that baby. You know the one whose crying the entire trip, with projectile vomit and diahrrea, mixing in everybody’s bad time with shit and perfumed diaper smells. Lucky for us, the plane served as some kind of weird depressant. As soon as the air started pumping, he went right to sleep and missed the whole experience. We arrived in Istanbul and he started yawning awake.

The airport was manageable as well, except for the toy shop. I hate toy shops. And the prices of toys equally hate me. It was the only time we had to manage a screaming baby when we told him we could only buy one car, despite him holding six. I wanted to buy him no cars, but whatever. My original intent was to buy him the car, so bought one I did.

The next flight went with equal ease. Though he did wake up a bit to see what was going on and decided that sleeping was the better option. Fantastico. Though I agreed with him, I instead wasted my time watching some B-level film. It was such a good flick I forget what it was.

baby on plane
Why am I awake for this?!

Istanbul airport

It’s a new airport. A bigger one than Attaturk. It was clear Attaturk was suffering traffic intake difficulties simply from the fact that our plane never got a gate. We always went down into a bus and rode for 30 minutes to the airport.

I was thinking Istanbul Airport would be bigger. We landed at a gate! So exciting! And then we descended some stairs down into a bus and rode around for 30 minutes. Given the reduced traffic from Covid, that did not bode well for the airport.

The interior is fairly nice. There’s certainly a lot more seating area and cafes than Attaturk, but it already felt near capacity. Maybe there was a hidden terminal they were keeping closed during Covidtimes, who knows. Whatever, good luck to them.

Arriving in Brussels

This is where things got weird. It was too easy. We stamped our ways through and they didn’t even ask for a vaccine proof or the PCR test results at the passport control. We did get a text message and an email later asking us to take two tests: one on the first day and one on the seventh day. We were to quarantine until the first positive result. There were several testing sites at the airport, but as we were in a hurry to get to the airbnb and put our exhausted baby to bed, we made the mistake of not doing the easy, line-less, super convenient test right there.

For those arriving in Brussels, do the test at the airport.

The next day, we got up and went to the nearest testing center. Apparently during a respiratory pandemic, jogging is super popular in Belgium. There was a kind of massive festival going on at the site of the pop-up clinic. People were everywhere celebrating, music playing, general ambient cheer. Such a gleefest evidently closed down the testing center. Ungh. I would have loved to join in the fun with a beer and waffle if not for the fact we should be laying low and getting a test.

That meant we had to jump on the metro and get to the next testing center. Another first for the kiddo! The boy loves trains, so this was an easy one. We got down the escalator and right at the incoming metro train he just starting saying, “Wow, choochoo train!” I think he just kind of shut down with his own exuberance when we stepped onto said choochoo train. He settled down and didn’t make any fuss. All this calmness a very strange thing for such a typically hyperactive young boy.

Updated: Oct 14, 2023

I’ve skated along thus far pretty well, blissfully unaware of any near misses I may have had up to this point. My year has been as full as I could have asked for, being a new father and all, and I’ve still been able to see friends on some—albeit rare—occasions. Though I’m not sure if my decline in social life is because of covid or fatherhood…

But this week was one of those rare occasions I decided to break the general isolation. An old friend was playing his country music at a beer garden, and I decided to gather some friends and go. We were among the mostly-vaxed, and a couple fully-vaxed, and the singer himself was fully-vaxed, but with the Chinese vaccine. And herein lies why I’m sitting on my balcony writing this, with the bedroom door closed and my son occasionally tapping on the door wondering why I won’t play with his cars with him.

The day after the outdoor show, the singer tested positive for covid. In Tbilisi, all cases are of the hyper infectious Variant D—which I can’t help but to feel as part of an MCU plot. Normally this wouldn’t concern me much, but we had sat together and chatted for a bit and I have a kid.

The most annoying thing is I know I've been at greater risk, but it was never spelled out to me that I was exposed. And now it's probably a lower risk, and I have to decide to be responsible or be the opposite.

The kid-factor

It’s the kid-factor that changes everything. More kids are showing up in hospitals since D has shown up. And not enough studies have been made to show whether these kids are showing up simply because D is more infectious and the same rate of serious illnesses among children is occurring (thus leading more kids to the hospital) or because it’s that much more dangerous for kids. As a father, I’m not sure I like that calculation.

Playing with cahs.

The first two days I’ll be honest. I was betting I didn’t even catch the damn thing. We were outside, we were fairly distanced, and we didn’t chat for that long. But as the day draws closer to where, if I had caught it the viral load would be high enough to be infectious even before I showed symptoms, I began to get nervous. Hopefully that time hasn’t already passed, which is why I’m getting tested on this day. But if it has passed and that test shows positive—it means that I was already contagious and my kid could already have it and we’re just waiting around to see whether he gets it, and if he does, if he even gets a serious case.

The chances are obviously overwhelmingly on our side. My decision to ride the rest of the period out locked up in my room certainly helps us. It’s an astronomical chance anything bad could happen. Firstly, I’d have to have caught it. And since I’m half-Pfizer’d, that at least helps by 30%. We were outside. We were fairly distanced. I’ve been wearing a mask inside ever since. And now I’m in a room apart from the rest of the flat.

In some sense, I’m taking up a bit of the Georgian culture. There is a medieval village in the mountains, Shatili, where nearby was a “plague village”. In times of plague, the sick would go off to these small huts, seal themselves up, and die. It was a way of saving the rest of the village so that the disease wouldn’t spread. Now, our epidemiology has hopefully improved since then, but same sort of thing. Holing up for a weekend and waiting in a cabin full of bones to die. Yeah, same thing.

The Pandemic of the Unvaccinated and Children

This D variant is the spanner in the works. People are more and more vaccinated—and that’s great—but the vaccinations aren’t one hundred percent, and they’re even less now with D. Pfizer has been downgraded to the upper 80-percentiles, and all the other vaccines have been lowered in efficacy as well against it.

And those generous percentages come with a huge catch. Those are percentages where it’s likely you won’t end up in the hospital. How the vaccine helps defeat the infection early on—so that we don’t spread it—and if the infection holds up and a viral load… we don’t know yet.

That is to say, it’s still better to be vaccinated. You’re still less likely to catch it, and thus to spread it, than if you were unvaccinated. The leaks from the CDC have come with poor wording, where it says, “You are more likely to spread it if you are vaccinated”, leaving out the “more likely to spread D than other variants if you are vaccinated”. Not against the unvaccinated. I’ve read a lot of people who don’t seem to have understood that huge difference.


But, that also means the vaccinated folks still need to take care. If you have children, it might still be a good idea to reduce the social life. And even if you are vaccinated, you should still mask up when in close proximity to others, because you could spread it to them and they could have children or be living with other at-risk members (like conspiracy theorists).

Timing is a bugger

And of course, this has to happen right when I’m about to get my second dose. There is apparently no danger in getting vaccinated while having covid. The problem is that if you don’t know if you have covid or not, and you get side effects from the vaccine, you won’t really know if they’re from the vaccine or from having covid until a couple of days have passed. And during that time, you could be infectious (if you actually have covid). That’s why they say to refrain from getting vaccinated if you’ve been exposed (and also you could infect people at the clinic).

Of course, for me, it will be on the 7/8th day. The average incubation period for D is at a much reduced 3.4ish days. That means if I test again on Monday, show I’m negative, then really I should be clear. Unless I’m the exception of the exception of the exception. And as I’ve never won a lottery in my life, I don’t expect to start now.

Granted, with my luck…

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