Monday, July 15, 2013

Gunkholing Diatonia

"No tram pass for visitors. It is residents only. Do you want to buy a ticket?" The agent said this with a touch of impatience and I felt the implied pressure of the travelers in line behind me, needing to catch their own trains. Despite the ticket agent's certainty, I knew that he was misinformed. As it turned out I was in the wrong line, at the wrong place, at the wrong time. I should have been in the De Lijnwinkel line at Kornmarkt later that afternoon.

I do love passes and librarians when I travel. Both are terrific resources that help take the angst out of exploring out-of-the-way places. So, on that first morning in Sint-Pieters train station in Ghent, I had joined the ticket queue, intending to purchase an annual tram and bus pass. It is so inexpensive that there was no concern about our leaving Belgium well before it expired. The price is a sort of reward for those of us who have survived sixty-five trips around the sun -- a bit like Delta's SkyMiles being a reward for all those hours waiting in airports.

Morning croissants are just across the street.
This country certainly does cater to a senior's travel needs. Round trips on Belgium trains are six euros, with only a few restrictions, like leaving after 09:00. To my mind, this is not so much a restriction as the truly sensible advice to have a leisurely coffee and croissant with fresh orange juice rather than setting an alarm and rushing to the station.

An annual De Lijn bus and tram pass is 36 euros. To put that in perspective, riding Atlanta's MARTA for a year would cost ten times more and be restricted to one city, whereas De Lijn seems to go most everywhere in northern Belgium, including Antwerp, Brussels, Bruges and all the tiny towns all about. I had read about this pass in the states, puzzling through Google Translate's English version of De Lijn's Dutch explanations. But on our arrival this ticket agent firmly declared that such a pass was not possible for visitors. No way. Only Belgium citizens qualified. The helpful Tourist Information office regretfully concurred.

Previously our local friend Anja had graciously visited De Lijnwinkel (De Lijn's store) and emailed that indeed, we needed only a passport and euros. Fortunately, the De Lijnwinkel agent herself agreed and we emerged a short time later clutching our magic cards. As gunkholers we have been cruising Belgium, using the trains like a mother ship for arriving and De Lijn like a dinghy for exploring. 

Yes, there was a concert.
Plus, in Ghent we hop on and off trams as if we belonged. A couple of days ago I found myself helping some Spaniards navigate the system. They asked in French, thinking we were locals, and we answered in our pidgin patois. The trouble was that neither side actually spoke any French. By the time I switched to using my dimly-remembered high school Spanish, my vocabulary had been thoroughly trampled by the effort of making up French-sounding words. In the end we pointed to the approaching #1 tram and nodded, thus resorting to a universal sign language. I do hope they made their train connection.

Last week we called on Harelbeek, where we sat at a frites table with Toon Van Merlo and Pascale Rubens and chatted about why we were hanging about that tiny town -- to hear them play, of course -- and got invited to come over to their house for a drink sometime. They were very gracious and Toon seemed totally bemused at the idea of my spending the summer, stalking the mazurka. 

This after we stepped off the train in Harelbeek only to discover that there was no Naragonia concert. Several shopkeepers declared that the only concert was the last weekend or perhaps the next, certainly nothing like that on Tuesday evening. Disconsolate, we wandered about peering into closed stores and thinking about when the next train might take us back to Ghent. 

Dancing to Naragonia.
On impulse we stepped into the library and chatted up the librarian. She regretfully agreed, no concert, until I mentioned bells; Naragonia Duo was to be accompanied by a carillon. The librarian and a colleague did the research, confirmed the schedule, and pointed the way toward a steeple full of bells. Local librarian knowledge at its best.

As we sat admiring the bell tower, the oncoming twilight and the dancers, Naragonia played my favorite mazurkas. It was simply entrancing.

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