The following entry is by John Wagstaff (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign)
Memories of Antwerp
IAML conferences always leave good memories, some personal, some professional. The story I want to share here happened in Antwerp even before our 2014 annual conference had begun, though, and is definitely of the “personal memories” variety. I had arrived at Antwerp’s multi-storey railway station in mid-afternoon on Sunday July 13, and, stimulated to a level of over-confidence by the mighty support of a Google Maps printout, had decided that I’d walk from the station to the Crowne Plaza hotel – o.k., it looked like it was a couple of miles, but I’d been sitting on trains since the morning, and needed the exercise (I’m still trying to remember exactly why I thought it would be a good idea to travel London-Paris-Antwerp on the day before Bastille Day, rather than going more directly via Brussels). And I know how to read a map, so what could possibly go wrong?
What went wrong happened quite quickly, in fact. My supposedly trusty map turned out to be a faux ami (hardly surprising perhaps, given that I was in Flemish-speaking Belgium and not the Francophone part), and it soon became apparent that I was wandering aimlessly, with my estimated time of arrival at the Crowne Plaza now shifted to something like… Tuesday. Fortunately, I then spotted a man carrying a trombone case. Could this be the person, I thought, who would help me find the Crowne Plaza and, what is more, get to some conference session or other before Wednesday? (oh, wait, we didn’t have any conference sessions on Wednesday, but that’s another story…). I asked the man if he spoke English. He did, “a little”. So I told him where I was going, and he told me I was lost. Since we were so clearly on the same wavelength at this point I decided to admit that he was right; but could he help me? It turned out that yes, he could, as his house was on the way to the hotel. I needed to walk down to the third set of traffic signals and then turn left, so if I liked I could follow him. This I did for about a quarter of a mile, then he took pity on me and started walking alongside me, so inevitably we started talking. I quickly learned that he played trombone in the local band of the Belgian national railways (the SNCB), and was going home after a concert or a rehearsal (I don’t remember which, but my own memories of playing in bands as a teenager are that there isn’t always that much difference). Since I also have a long-standing interest in trains we quickly found that we had things to talk about.
My new friend told me that it was (still) about two miles to my hotel, and although weighed down a little by his trombone case he insisted on walking nearly all the way with me. At one point we stopped for a couple of minutes while he unlocked his front door in a very pleasant side-street and left his trombone in the hallway. I’m sure that he could simply have given me directions from there to the hotel, and furthermore it was beginning to rain; but he simply put his cap firmly on his head and off we went again. Along the way he pointed out various landmarks, and I learned that he worked in the accounts department of SNCB (secretly I was, of course, hoping that he went all over Europe driving prestigious express trains; but this present story is a true, rather than made-up, one). We got to the hotel and said goodbye after exchanging names – his was Jan. As I said farewell to him I couldn’t help thinking that the kindly actions of this randomly-met stranger had done more to create a good impression of Antwerp for me than any number of glossy brochures from the local tourist office. And whenever I visit Belgium in future I shall remember this kind trombonist who took pity on a visitor one July Sunday afternoon.