2.16.2010

Belgium: Part 1

I was coming right out of a bad week of the Glange when we made our way to Belgium. I went with a bunch of Americans: Katie (Truman), Megan (from the East Coast), Spencer (SLU), and we met Doug (SLU) and Dan and Bridget (Truman) in Dublin. Doug’s brother, who is in the seminary in Rome, met us in Belgium, too.

We left Galway on Thursday afternoon to hang out in Dublin for the night. We good kids left later than the rest so that we could make it to our afternoon classes. That was the plan, but I may or may not have skipped my afternoon class to go shopping (in the rain) for wellies (rainboots), ruining my tennis shoes in the process.

The bus ride to Dublin was uneventful. Our flight from Dublin to Brussels-Charleroi airport was at 7 a.m. So after one round in a pub in the Temple Bar area, we left to make our way to the airport where we planned to sleep. That didn’t go as planned. The last bus to the airport that left at 11:15 p.m. was nowhere to be found. We walked up and down the street in the steady rain, but by 11:45 we called it quits and hailed a couple taxis. By this time my throat was throbbing.

We got to the airport around midnight only to discover that the Ryanair desks would be closed until 4 a.m. So we pulled some couches together in Starbucks to sleep. Two very large bags of candy didn’t help that, and I think I was the only one that got any shut eye (probably thanks to the mono).

At 4 a.m. I woke up to everybody packing up (not sure they were even going to wake me). We got McDonalds breakfast (I’m happy to report it tastes the same as home) and headed through security. We were the first ones in the terminal. Everybody else went exploring while I fell asleep on the floor with my backpack and “guarding” everyone’s coats.

When I woke up, there were magically people all over the terminal—many were staring. Doug informed me that at one point, another flight was boarding and I was sleeping right in the middle of their queue. So there was a lot of staring.

It was my first time flying with Ryanair. The outrageous blue and yellow color scheme is annoying, the planes are tiny, and the “duh duh duh” trumpet sound at the end to announce safe landing is terrifying, but other than that it wasn’t too bad. I actually dozed off and woke up to several passengers shrieking at the very, very rough landing. But you get what you pay for. We arrived in Belgium in late morning. An hour bus ride later (it’s all these buses that suck up the euros), and we were in Brussels just before 1 (ahem, I mean 13:00).

That’s when a map would have been useful and the adventure really began. We found our way into the train station and wandered around for a good thirty minutes getting used to the different languages (Brussels is mostly French but there’s some Dutch thrown in there), and trying desperately to read the few maps scattered about.

I finally resorted to asking a security worker if he knew where Sleepwell Hostel was, and he didn’t. But after extensive consultation with his colleagues, they decided that it was much too far to walk. We smiled politely, hiked our backpacks up, and took off to wander. And I’m happy to report the walk didn’t take long at all—or at least it wouldn’t have had we not inadvertently taken a lot of winding routes.

The first thing that struck me about Brussels were the giant cartoon murals everywhere. I knew there was a comic museum or some such nonsense here, but they were all over the sides of buildings! And I’ve never seen so much graffiti before, either.

Brussels was gracious enough to provide us with street signs (unlike Ireland), but they were all tacked on the sides of buildings. So you had to walk up to every corner building and hope there was a sign on the building. If not, you had to walk a few more blocks before you found one. And when you did, they were usually in French or Dutch (sometimes both), which didn’t always match what the directions had told you.

We got to the hostel around 2:30 p.m. (I pride myself on being the lead navigator of that mission) and sat around playing foosball until 3 when we could finally check in. It was my first experience with a hostel, but it was a fairly good one. I immediately took a shower, which was quite the experience (towels cost five euro so a tank top had to get the job done).

Afterward the rest of the group went to a brewery tour, but me and my enlarged spleen were pretty wrecked and slept all afternoon.

Sad spleen. Via http://new.allanwolf.com/.

Sad spleen.
Via http://new.allanwolf.com/.

I woke up around 9 p.m. and tried to make plans to meet up with the rest of the gang, but my mother taught me well and I thought better of it (dark, late hour, foreign city, isolated street, don’t speak the language, girl from America, etc). I fell asleep about an hour later and slept right through to breakfast.

I’m not proud of it, but we woke up for the complimentary breakfast at 8 a.m. with ulterior motives. The meal was disappointing—cereal, really bitter orange juice, coffee, and bread, but we stowed away enough slices of bread and off-brand nutella in our purses to forgo lunch. This was strictly prohibited, but broke college students have been known to do worse. I tried to down a glass of orange juice to replace those Vitamin C pills I’m supposed to be taking, but it was too bitter. The hostel shuts down daily from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. for cleaning, so we put all our stuff in the luggage room and set out.

We found our way to Noordstation (I won’t say we got lost, but it did take an extraordinarily long time) to get a train to Ghent. At one point whilst I was flinging my camera about taking pictures of pretty buildings, we heard someone walking behind us rather quickly. It was a shifty looking man who pushed past us and lo and behold—he was carrying a purse. I don’t think it belonged to him. (And I shoved my camera away very quickly.) A young man in a backpack and a nicely dressed woman followed a few seconds later, also looking shifty. Accomplices, perhaps? The man, rounding a corner down an alley, motioned for the two to follow him and yelled something angrily. Needless to say we high-tailed it out of there.

To skip the hours of wandering confusion, we went straight to the ticket counter this time and told them our plans, asking for the appropriate transportation. The woman behind the counter was an absolute jerk. We found this was a trend—the Belgians you stopped on the street for directions were perfect sweethearts, but the people at work, those paid to work with tourists, looked and talked as if they wanted to spit in your face (the joke would be on them because I’d spit back and I’m the one with the Epstein-Barr virus).

Anywho, we dozed on the train to Ghent where we planned to meet up with Bridget, Dan, Doug, and Donny. Well as soon as we got off the train in Ghent and walked into a convenience store looking for a map, who do I see but Dan and Bridget. I said, “This is weird.” And Dan said, “Oh, hey,” before doing a double take and exclaiming some cuss words. It’s much more fun running into friends in Belgium.

Together we set off for the Gravensteen Castle to meet Doug and Donny. Of course at the time we didn’t know that’s what it was called. So it was substantially more difficult to find. I won’t say we got lost, but we definitely took the long way. I don’t know how many people we stopped that morning. The conversation always went something like this:
American: Do you speak English?
Belgian: Very little bit.
American: We’re looking for the castle.
Belgian: Okay, what you’re gonna wanna do…
And then the Belgian would continue to give specific directions using perfect English. Little bit my ass.

We would have gotten there a lot quicker if their streets weren’t so completely crooked. No wonder Europe loves the roundabout, there’s no other way to connect all those poorly planned streets (someone told us very defensively that it was so because these towns had been around since before cars—a snide jab at the young American West, I think).

We finally met Doug at the castle, and it was incredible. You’d think we’d be burnt out on castles by now but I don’t think they’ll ever get old. A few of the others are taking a class on castles, so they kept spouting off the names of different architectural pieces. (I try to make my friends sound very sophisticated, but in reality they only know the name of one thing: a motte. And I don’t know what that is, because I’m not sure they know what that is.) Here’s Doug at the very top (of a million stairs):

Next we waited around for the train to Bruges (Brugge, if you want to get technical). At the train station, Donny bought french fries. This is another thing that Belgium is famous for. There are fries stands everywhere (they call them frites or something like that). The fries aren’t anything to sing about, but the special part is that they eat their fries with mayonnaise. Now, I was every bit as skeptical as you, my friend. But Donny made me try one, and I’ll tell you, it was magical. I’m not sure their mayo is exactly like ours, but it was delicious.

The ride to Bruges was very quick. The bike rack outside of Bruges was the most absurd thing I have ever seen. I honestly believe the number of bikes there was comparable to the number of bikes I’ve ever seen in my entire life. It was like when you can’t remember where you parked your car at the mall—the aisles were numbered and everything! The funny part is, we saw barely any people in Bruges (probably saw more bikes than people).

We ate lunch in Bruges, where I ordered chicken and was given half of a chicken. Meaning I had to pull it apart myself—talk to anyone in the family, there’s nothing that scares Annie more than taking meat off the bone. The biggest irony, though, was that our waiter was an Irishman.

After lunch we made our way to the Half Moon Brewery which, of course, had already filled up its last tour of the day. So we wandered around the town looking for something else to do. The town really is adorable, like something out of a “fuckin’ fairytale,” and like the town from Beauty and the Beast. We wandered into a chocolate shop where we spent a good hour picking out chocolates to fill up our 7-euro-box. We had a good chat with the chocolate man, too. We took a picture of him and he said, “Where am I going?” Megan said, “America.” He said, “Oh, I’m already in New York.”

I was a little disappointed when he told us he doesn’t make the chocolate. He just sells it. The boss makes the chocolate on the coast and brings it to Bruges to sell (I’m assuming because it’s such a huge tourist town). After that we went to the cathedral to see the Michelangelo statue that is one of only 2 to ever leave Italy (Bruges is very proud of this).

Then it was nearing 4:30 and we decided to rush to the boat company for a canal tour. Only we didn’t know where it was. I said that we needed to ask somebody. Dan volunteered. He said, “I can tell who speaks English.” I laughed at him. He walked off and looked around for a moment before approaching a group of 3 girls. He said, “Excuse me, do you speak English?” They immediately erupted into laughter. “We’re American, too!”

So Dan won that round. They were three girls studying somewhere in Europe and, miraculously, they were able to give us directions to the boat place. We got there with five minutes to spare. The boat driver was a cheery man (I’m being sarcastic) who gave the tour half-heartedly in French and English (of course we were the only ones on the tour who didn’t speak French).

The tour guide spoke so quickly and with such a strong accent that I generally couldn’t tell when he stopped speaking French and started speaking English. But it was rather entertaining, the way he would tell a joke in English and we would all laugh, then he would switch languages and you could tell he was saying the exact same joke in French—but they rarely laughed. The canals were gorgeous. The buildings right up on the water fascinate me, and there were a ton of swans.

After it was beginning to drizzle and we took refuge in a pub. I don’t remember what it was called, but it was across the cobblestone street (as most streets in Belgium are) from a pub called De Hobbit. The others tried a lot of different beers and had a grand time bonding with our waiter. I, however, just coming out of the fever stage of mono was not supposed to drink. It was a great let down, since Belgium does claim to have the best beer in the world, but I’m over it (clearly).

While walking through the train station on the way back to Brussels and complaining about all the food places being closed, we were called out by another American. I asked if it was that obvious and he said, “You’re wearing Uggs and talking about how Europeans don’t like to work.” Touche. We talked to him for a long time on the train back, he was teaching high school math in Barcelona and visiting his Belgian friend from Antwerp. He taught us a few words in Dutch, namely, “Don’t take my purse,” which we promptly forgot.

We got on the topic of beer and the Belgian said Americans talk an absurd amount about alcohol. I know exactly what he means. “Oh man, I just want to get wasted.” “I wish I was drunk right now.” “Wanna black out tonight?” Blah blah blah…but this may be the sober (bitter) mono talking. I have decided that I will blame everything and anything from now until June on the Glange. But that’s mainly Doug’s fault. He’s the one that started the trend of dismissing anything I say with a flip of the hand and an “Oh, she’s got mono…” or “It’s the mono messing with her head…” This confuses strangers a great deal—mono is an American term.

(Continued here…)

Sincerely Annie

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