Mark and I arrived in Antwerp two days ago, and I am writing this on an AZERTY keyboard, which has returned me to one-finger typing. I started to write this yesterday afternoon inside the fitness centre that all registered OutGames athletes, as well as non-competing registered guests such as myself, are entitled to use for free. I have resumed composing this at the downtown Hostelling International hostel we are staying at. The gym was only a ten-minute tram ride here from the hostel.

Antwerp is in Flanders and thus the official language is Flemish (or Dutch). The Lonely Planet guidebook says that it would be a faux pas (pardon my French) to just start a conversation with anyone in French. I have found that English is more welcome than French, and a lengthy conversation with a bookstore worker confirmed this. He said that aside from the obligatory French lessons that all Flanders students take, no one really uses French here and you are more likely to find someone who would rather speak to you in English versus French. We in fact started speaking to each other in French when I informed him that I spoke no Flemish or Dutch. Then we switched to English.

Yesterday was the opening ceremony for the third World OutGames and unlike in Cologne where Mark participated in the Gay Games three years ago, these opening ceremonies were not held in an arena or stadium but outside in a sandy square by the Schelde River. We met Steven Bereznai there, who used to write for the Toronto Star and fab magazine. He took our photo and it might end up in Xtra. Mark and I if I do say so myself looked the adorable couple, as I chose to wear a white tank top and red shorts while Mark wore a red tank top and white shorts. We both wore red baseball caps. We did not coordinate our outfits and only discovered what we had decided to wear when we left for the night. We also met Mr. Gay Canada 2012, Thomas Egli, who hung out with us before we marched in. Thomas bears striking resemblance to a fellow employee of the Mississauga Library System.

The team from Belgium marched in last and the entire team had yellow umbrellas. It was so funny because the female cohost of the opening ceremonies (which were conducted mostly in English, but also with some Flemish) said that the team had umbrellas “because it always rains in Belgium”. She was right about that two days ago, but it hasn´t rained since. The team that got the most applause was from Russia. Gays and lesbians continue to experience violence there–even elected officials in Russia have shown no aversion to revealing their open homophobia–and the uproarious reception from the thousands of athletes showed them how welcome they were.

The entire city is bedecked with rainbow flags. It is a welcome to all participants in the OutGames. Imagine this happening in Rob Ford´s Toronto! Big flags line entire streets and are in countless shop windows. One sees red “A” lapel pins here (“A” for Antwerp, of course) and they are square and bear striking resemblance to red Scrabble Protiles. Antwerp, maybe because it happens to flank the Schelde River, also has mosquitoes and I have the bites to prove it. Since arriving in the Netherlands, and then through to Luxembourg and now in Belgium, I have been congested in the same endless nose-blowing way I get back home in early September. I wonder what could be triggering my allergies in Benelux.

Belgium loves its French fries–er, strike a line through “French”–or rather, frieten, and there are frieten kiosks, or frituur or frietkot, everywhere. I ordered some yesterday, a size *small*, and was given a compact brick of frieten wrapped in tinfoil larger than the biggest McDonald´s serving. They were delicious, made from fresh potatoes which were not frozen.

Tomorrow at 09.30 (still 03.30 in the morning Eastern Standard Time) Mark starts competing in in-line skating racing and I will be there waving the maple leaf. Then I will hit both the Dutch- and French-language bookstores.

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