So there I was last week in Ostend, Belgium at a 5-day massive rock festival during the throes of Delta.
How, you ask?
It is a major miracle for sure. This is my third W-Fest, and I swore that after its two-year forced hiatus, I wouldn’t miss it, no matter what. And I’m a constant N95 mask-clad, overcautious, people and restaurant-avoiding germaphobe.
On Sept. 4, the Council of the European Union removed the United States from its safe travel list, as its current rate of coronavirus infections exceeded the EU limit of 75 new cases per 100,000 inhabitants over the prior 14 days. In fact, according to Bloomberg, the U.S. had 507 new cases per 100,000 inhabitants over the first two weeks of August.
Europe, however, reported a decrease in cases. Fortunately, I was already there.
Delta Airlines required a current negative COVID test to board, proof of vaccination (the agent was impressed that I’d wangled a Pfizer booster the previous week as well), and masks through the flight unless actively eating. Attendants even checked sleeping passengers. Since my peeps were reticent and said they’d wait for my videos, I stayed in a private Airbnb across the beach promenade that I’d grabbed last year the moment the fest was announced.
All good. But… a rock festival?
W-Fest worked with the Belgian government to pull it off. They moved it outdoors, from inland Waregem to the 5.5 mile Ostend beachfront. Attendees had to have proof of full vaccination, and a 48-hour window negative COVID test (a medical rapid testing station was on site). No exit and reentry was allowed. Once in, you stayed.
The delightful beach city on the North Sea is roughly across from London. Marvin Gaye had lived in Ostend, and recorded his mega-LP “Midnight Love” there. Exiting the train, I saw why. Pretty harbor views of boats, preserved warships, fish stands, bustling cafes (like “Bistro Chopin”), war memorials and works of art greeted me, and I heard the festival right away.
I could not get over the view each day from my 7th floor Airbnb, as I looked down upon so many people on the rubbery-tiled promenade, on foot, bicycle, boards, and vintage-looking wheeled contraptions that seated entire families. The side streets were filled with restaurants and shops of every ethnicity (to be safest, I opted for the large, spread-out SPAR gourmet supermarket for my food runs). Everybody spoke English, though I tried what Dutch I knew.
Back to W-Fest. Each day, I was intensely vetted. I had to show my vax card, booster card and test result.
There were many thousands there, yes. But all, miraculously, were likewise negative. It was a full village, spread out with plenty of areas to isolate if desired. I was able to sit on an elevated platform above the crowd to write and safely enjoy OMD, the Human League, Nena (“99 Red Balloons”), Paul Young (“Every Time You Go Away”), and other top 80s post-punk and new wave acts. Mixed in this year were some earlier hitmakers like The Orchestra (Members of ELO), Starship, the Queen Symphonic (a theatrical tribute to Queen, with a full symphony orchestra), and the Jacksons (the brothers)!
Since I had not been to Europe in almost 2 years, I’d decided to stay another week in the area, and explored Bruges, the lovely, cobblestoned medieval capital of Flanders, and Ghent, a more cosmopolitan city also filled with picturesque canals.
On to the Netherlands. I stayed two days in Amsterdam, where I hadn’t been in many years.
My first stop was the Anne Frank House, which I had visited before but is always tearfully overwhelming. It is now a large museum that connects inside to the family’s fated hideaway. It was beyond bizarre to connect to the Anne Frank Wi-Fi signal and say a prayer. But indoor places were not in my plans during Delta, so I proceeded to prowl through the beautiful and always hopping city.
Large parking lots filled with bicycles were everywhere, and that’s how everyone gets to the quaint squares, small shops, and as in Belgium, the greatest breads and chocolate. I only ate in my private rooms, or outdoors, in empty areas. The N95s were not coming off my face, not even for photos.
Yeah, I walked through the Red Light District and perused the space cake shops selling various confections graded from “relaxing” to “Wow, What a Life!” But I was more blown away by the breathtaking views of the houseboat-lined canals.
I then visited The Hague, the international city of peace and justice located further up the North Sea from Ostend. Housing the seat of the Dutch Parliament, the city is known for its historic peace treaty conventions. I walked to the ICC (International Criminal Court), and then to the neo-Renaissance Peace Palace, which houses the UN International Court of Justice.
I was delighted to then discover the beautiful, bustling and charming City Centre, with narrow streets lined with cafes, boutiques and arts sites. The squares and sculptures wowed. I stayed at the old-worldish, tall and skinny Dutch Golden Hotel and in the morning, headed to Brussels Airport for my pre-flight PCR test.
After the airport sideline was Rotterdam. I had been there two years ago, but hadn’t explored the city center, aptly named “The Cool District.” (The municipality name Cool dates back to 1280, so likely didn’t mean what it does now — but it fits.) The super busy, mainly pedestrian area is filled with outdoor restaurants, shops, performance spaces and artwork. Every street was mobbed with super hip people, and bicycles. The grand Stadhuis, or Town Hall, and Tourist Information building are showstoppers. A long, pretty canal had colorful chairs and seating sandbags, with arresting sculptures and amazing architecture in every direction. My eyes were wide, and under my mask, my mouth as well.
Rotterdam holds a very special place in my heart, as it was where, in 1920, my ancestors, like many Eastern European immigrants, got on the boat to America. They had fled pogroms and firing squads in their village in Kiev, and walked all the way there — in winter.
I’d been to the docks of the Wilhelmina Pier two years prior, and as I said the memorial prayer for them, a white swan appeared beneath the dock post where I had laid stones, in Jewish tradition.
Nearby, a plaque tells the proud Dutch story of aiding those who departed there to find beginnings in a new land. A “Lost Luggage” tribute installation features bronzed valises and baggage.
It was time to walk to Centraal Station and head back to Brussels Airport, where I’d get Belgian chocolate for gifts and work, until my 4 a.m. check-in for my 7 a.m. flight home. My reticent chauffeur was waiting at Logan and I was a zombie, but a zombie filled with new memories.
Oh, and my N95 mask-adherence, indoor shop-avoidance and people-distancing had paid off. I was “negatief.”