We spent the next day slogging through Antwerp's rainy streets. We were mainly just wasting time until our afternoon train to Essen, home of the annual Kerstbierfestival. We attended last year (Antwerp and a Beer Festival) and it remains one of the highlights of our travels. We stopped at two of Antwerp's Christmas markets and then settled at a cafe to get a jump-start on our Belgian beer tasting and fill our stomachs with a nice cushion of spaghetti bolognese.
Taking the train from Antwerp Central Station was fun. The station is beautiful and the regional train we took was a classic style that brought to mind scenes of Harry Potter and the Hogwarts Express. After a pleasant 40-minute ride through picturesque Belgian villages, we arrived in Essen and boarded the charter bus to take us to the high school gymnasium that houses the beer festival.
Pulling into the parking lot was nostalgic and I thought of us at this time last year, fresh to Europe and still confused about lots of things. My sister was visiting and we had a great time sampling beers we'd never heard of and making friends with other festival attendees.
|O.B.E.R. Festival in Essen, Belgium|
Our experience this year was mostly the same although we were more informed about the beers this time. Last year was more of a free-for-all because we hadn't had the time to cultivate our repertoire of Belgian beers yet. After getting our first samples, we wandered around searching for a place to sit among the long tables in the center of the gym. Finally someone left and we snagged a prime people-watching position. Before long, we were joined by a Dutchman and several of his friends on one side, and a Belgian and Englishman on the other.
The usual questions were asked of us: "Are you here on holiday?" "Will you be staying long?" "What brings you to Europe?" "How did you find this festival in the middle of nowhere?"
With undisguised pride, we informed all of them, "Oh, you know, we were here last year. We're staying in Antwerp tonight. Lovely city. Good food."
|Beer and cheese. Yes, please.|
Once we established that we could hold our own (ground and beer), the conversation shifted easily between topics including other worthy beer festivals in the region, American television, Dutch and Belgian languages, marriage, and American gun laws. Where else but a beer festival in a high school gym could complete strangers discuss such riveting subjects?
Last year we met some people who lived in the area. They were very kind and invited us to sit with them at their table. We spent several hours talking and laughing. One of the reasons we were excited to return this year is because of the possibility of seeing them again. We were disappointed when we didn't find them at their usual table as soon as we arrived.
A few hours into it, my husband got up to retrieve a some more beers and he returned with some winter ales and one of our old friends. He had approached my husband and asked if we were the Americans who sat with him and his friends the past year. We were so happy to see him and he immediately joined us. We quickly noticed that he was without his group so we asked about his good friend and their wives. His expression darkened and he said, "Well, that's a very sad thing. He died a few months ago. Heart attack, completely unexpected." His eyes briefly filled with tears and he wiped them away quickly before taking a sip of his beer.
It was a very sad thing to hear. We couldn't believe such a vibrant man had been taken before his time. It was almost absurd that he was there last year, in the same room, sitting with us and enjoying life and now he was gone. His friend told us it was too painful for their wives to attend this year because it's something they always did together. He had come to honor his memory and have a few beers in his name. It was a sobering reminder of how short life really is, of how you can be here one minute and gone the next. But it wasn't really his style to be mournful. He was soon telling us about his new grandson and how happy he is to be a grandfather-- another reminder, this time of how life goes on and there is joy for every sorrow. I was very happy to see our old friend, and very moved as well.
Soon it was time to bid adieu to the Objective Beer Drinkers of the Essen Region. We shook hands with our friend and told him we'll see him next year. Then we took the train back to Antwerp but this time we weren't alone, as our Belgian and English friends joined us. The ride back went by much faster and we were a little sad to part ways at Antwerp Central.
We had a wonderful time in Antwerp and at the beer festival. I want to return every year because there are always new beers to try, new friends to meet, and old friends to see.
You won't hear from me for several days but I hope you have a very Happy New Year! We'll begin 2013 Italian-style, in Milan!
Frohes Neues Jahr!