We arrived at the Gare du Midi in Brussels around 5:30 pm and made our way down to the subway station underneath. We knew which station our hotel was near, but weren't quite sure the best way to get there. Josh bought tickets from a machine while I tried to find a map. No sign of one posted anywhere in the station. And when I asked one of the station attendants for a printed one, he said they didn't have any. When I pressed him about where I could find a map, he asked, "What do you need it for?" Seriously? This is an international train station full of tourists. Wouldn't it be helpful to have a metro system map posted somewhere so they can figure out how to get where they need to go? Maybe he misunderstood -- his English wasn't great, and neither is my French -- but this was not a great start to our weekend in Brussels. And it only got worse...
We made our way down to what we thought was the correct platform. Once again, no map. Just a list of train numbers and stations. I didn't see the station we needed to get to listed there, so I asked Josh if he was sure we were in the right place. He pulled his iPad out of his backpack and loaded the tiny Brussels metro map he had downloaded before we left and checked it against the sign. A friendly bystander with his two small children asked if we needed any help, so we told him where we were trying to go, and he confirmed that while the trains on this platform didn't stop there (despite what it looked like on the map), we could get off at another station that was only a few blocks away and walk from there. A train was approaching, so Josh went to put his iPad back in his backpack, which he had set down on the chair behind him. It was gone.
After a few frantic moments trying to find it and questioning uninterested bystanders, Josh ran back up to the station to find a police officer while I waited with our luggage. While we still had our wallets, cell phones, iPad, and camera, the backpack contained Josh's work laptop and both of our passports. Not good. The friendly man offered to stay with me until Josh returned, but since he had two restless little kids with him, I said I'd be OK. He gave me his business card and told me to call or email if we needed any help before herding his kids onto the train. Glad to know there is at least one good person in Brussels.
I waited for what seemed like an eternity as trains and passengers came and went. Josh had to wait in line to file a police report as there were several other people who had just been robbed in the station. Some even had their luggage stolen while they were using the ticket machines! I texted him the after-hours emergency number for the US Embassy in Brussels, so he called them while he was waiting and was instructed to show up there first thing on Monday morning with completed forms (available online) and passport photos. Then he had to go to the Eurostar office and change our return tickets, since we were planning to return to London Sunday evening as Josh had a full day of meetings scheduled on Monday. They confirmed that we would not be allowed to board the train to London without passports, so we were stuck in Brussels until we could get new ones. What a mess!
By the time we got to our hotel, we were cold, hungry, and utterly exhausted. The people at the reception desk were very sympathetic when we told them what had happened, and said they would extend our reservation another night. At least the hotel cheered us up a little. It was more like a large B&B, and was literally right across the street from one of the big Christmas markets. Each of the rooms at the Welcome Hotel is decorated in the theme of a different country that the owner has visited, complete with items he has brought back from his travels. We were in the Zanzibar room, which was decorated in peacock blue, complete with a peacock painted on the door.
|The door to our room (interior)|
|The Zanzibar room|
|Santa and the Christmas Ice Monster|
|Awesome steampunk carousel!|
Saturday we resolved to put our unpleasant arrival out of our minds and just enjoy the day. It was cold, gray, and drizzly, but we braved the dreary weather to take a walking tour of the city and enjoy the holiday decorations.
|Josh braves the shopping arcade|
|Jewelery (those are earrings on the tiny table)|
|Park and museum|
|Art Nouveau buildings|
|Museum of Musical Instruments|
|Palace of Justice|
|View from Palace of Justice|
|More Art Nouveau|
|Knit hats that look like baby clothes|
|More Art Nouveau|
|Mannekin Pis as St. Nick|
|Town Hall and Guildhalls|
|Christmas tree and snow globe|
|Tree and light posts|
|Outside our hotel, with Xmas market in background|
|Belgian waffle with chocolate, strawberries, and whipped |
|Naina and Twricy in the Grand Place|
|In the Grand Place by the Christmas tree|
|Mmmmm... Waffle with strawberries and warm chocolate sauce...|
In the evening, we walked through the Christmas market by our hotel, and then wandered back towards the Grand Place to visit the other Christmas market we had seen by the Bourse (stock exchange).
|Christmas market at St Katherine's Place|
|The Bourse, lit up, and another Christmas market|
|Nativity scene with live sheep|
|Light and music show in the Grand Place|
Finally, around 10:20 am, Josh asked the cashier if she had any idea how much longer we would have to wait, and if we might have time to run out and grab some breakfast, as we didn't have time to eat beforehand and we were starving. (Our hotel didn't start serving breakfast until 8) She was very apologetic and said the Consular Officer didn't show up for work until 10 am and went straight into a meeting, so we could probably leave as long as we were back by 11. Then she suggested we write to our congressman to complain. Yeah, I'm sure that would make a difference. We grabbed some croissants from a small cafe across the street, and then came back and waited some more.
All the visa applicants had come and gone, and all that remained in the room were other Americans who had also had their passports stolen over the weekend. We heard similar stories -- one woman had her wallet and passport stolen out of her backpack while she was holding it in front of her on a crowded metro train. Another man had his bag stolen from right under his feet as he was using the men's room at the train station. A third has his suitcase stolen while he was using the ticket machine at the station. Clearly, they have a serious problem with theft in Brussels.
We started getting a little peeved as people with higher numbers got called in before us. By the time they called #401, it was 11:30 am. The Consular Officer was somewhat apologetic for the delay, but only because she didn't see the "Urgent" sticker on our form -- not because she didn't even start processing applications until 11 am. She spent about 2 minutes having us swear an oath and sign a form, and then told us we would have our temporary passports within the next 30 minutes.
An HOUR later, we finally left the embassy with our temporary passports. Apparently the US will only issue and print passports in the US, so if you apply for one overseas, you have to do it by mail and wait for them to send it to you. In an emergency, they will issue you a temporary passport, which looks just like a real one but with fewer pages, and is only valid for one year. During that time, you must go through the application process all over again to get a real passport, so our ordeal was far from over -- in more ways than one.
We hurried back to our hotel, where we were supposed to have checked out of our room by noon. Fortunately, we had requested a late check-out and packed most of our things before we left, just in case, so while someone had already cleaned the room, our luggage was still there. We left our bags with the front desk and went off in search of lunch.
St Katherine's Place, where our hotel was located, used to have a canal running through it, and was once a popular fish market. It is surrounded by seafood restaurants, many with big red neon lobsters advertising their menu. Since I don't like seafood, and most of them were quite expensive, we ended up getting soup and a Belgian waffle from stalls at the Christmas market instead. Yummy, and quite a bargain in comparison.
We collected our luggage from the hotel and took the metro to the train station, keeping a close eye on our belongings. We arrived at 3:00 to catch a 4:00 train back to London, but hit yet another snag. Although no one even asked for our passports when traveling from Paris to Brussels, you must pass through border control before boarding a train to the UK. When the officer asked how long we intended to stay in the UK, we explained that we were resident there (we didn't think it would be wise to lie in this situation), but that our passports containing our immigration visas had been stolen. He said he'd need to verify our immigration status, and asked us to have a seat, pointing to an area off to the side with two folding chairs, both of which were occupied.
The occupants turned out to be a Japanese couple in the same boat. They also lived in London, but their passports had been stolen at the Christmas market, so they didn't have their immigration visas, either. The four of us waited for over an hour while everyone else boarded the train and left. Finally, we were told that they had verified our status and rebooked us on the 6 pm train. They stamped our passports to indicate we have a visa, so at least this won't happen again -- until we get our new ones.