Tuesday in Holy Week I was up early, headed for Brussels to renew my ordination vows at the annual service of the Blessing of the Oils, the Bishop of Gibraltar in Europe presiding.
There was no time for breakfast before heading out to the bus station. I walked down our street, the Rembrandtweg, one of those typical European streets with small shops below and apartments above. We live above a camera shop. The street gives way to the central square of our town, and on this morning the “Organic” market was being set up by large men with low voices. Crossing the red-brick cobbled square I entered the bus terminal and straight out the other side to the express bus bay.
I stood waiting with a mixed group heading to the airport: anxious travelers toting their wheeled suitcases, Japanese businessmen (sexist, yes, but I have never once seen a Japanese businesswoman), and students with destinations further than the airport stop. The articulated bus, the “300”, arrived and I stepped in at the back door, swiping my transport card at the reader, being greeted with a bleep and a cheerful “Goede Reis” (“Have a Good Trip”).
I took a seat in the back of the bus, where I’m most at home. The population there is more international, predominantly African. Racism isn’t tolerated in Holland, allegedly, but the legion of cleaners at the airport are almost entirely Ghanaian. Four years ago on my first trip to Washington Dulles I was struck by the number of African Americans in management positions throughout the airport; not so at Amsterdam Schiphol. Anyway, as I sat among the sleepy Ghanaians I took silent comfort in the fact that not a few of them were reading their Bibles or other Christian literature, earnestly underlining or highlighting as they went.
At the airport I bought a round-trip train ticket to Brussels Zuid-Midi, debating whether, seeing as it was rush-hour, I wouldn’t be better off going First Class and being sure of a seat. But no, the price difference was considerable; Second Class would have to do.
I now had time to spare for breakfast, so I bought a croissant and a cup of coffee, sat in the ranks of those faux-leather-airport-waiting-area chairs and watched the ant-hill frenzy of one of Europe’s largest airport hubs. I love airports. Something in me understands George Clooney’s character in “Up in the Air”.
Time to go, so I descended into the subterranean train station, remembering as I always do my first week as an airport chaplain and the tragedy of the Greek boy who committed suicide here. The loudspeaker was telling me “The international train to Antwerp and Brussels will depart from platform 5 or 6. The First Class carriages are found at the rear of the train.” I knew from experience – having taken this train twice a week for nearly a year – that both statements are half-truths. The train always departs from platform 6 and there is always a single Second Class carriage tacked on the end for good measure. But most people don’t know that so that car tends to be the most empty. I headed for the end of the platform.
The trip down was uneventful, except that I became aware that the American businessman going to Paris Charles DeGaulle (he told the conductor; I listened) could hardly move without groaning in pain. By the time we made Brussels I had heard his story – badly sprained ankle at Schiphol – and offered to carry his bags as he made the transfer. I gave him Advil, asked the attendant about the platform he needed, and got him on his way.
It was a day for Americans. On the return journey, standing on the platform at Brussels Zuid-Midi, a woman with a Texas accent came up and in a booming voice said, “Sir, where are you going!?”
“Amsterdam,” I replied, quietly.
“Well then, I’m in the right place, ’cause that’s were I’m going too! I’m from Houston, where are you from!?”
I told her I might find friends on the train, and they might be further down the platform; would she excuse me? It wasn’t a lie, but it wasn’t likely.
But no use. It was also a day for Texans. Five minutes later, at Brussels Central, an entire Texan family boarded – Grandpa & Grandma, daughter & son-in-law, grand-daughter. They needed to sit near each other and I offered to shift seats to accommodate. I ended up with Grandpa & Grandma, from Dallas, and we talked for the entire two-and-a-half hour trip back to Schiphol.
I like Americans, of that generation especially. There is something guileless and genuine about them. Yes, sometimes my toes were curling at the volume and ignorance, but in general we had a great time wiling away the kilometers – er, miles. Altogether a pleasant trip.
Oh, and yes, I renewed my vows.