Friday, July 31, 2015

Belgium Part 4/Amsterdam Part 1: Too Old and Drunk

We left Bruges by train and planned to make an afternoon stopover in Ghent to see Gravensteen and have some lunch before the three hour train ride to Amsterdam. I noticed a lot of the locals we spoke with in Bruges actually lived in Ghent and more than one person mentioned that it was a cool city so I was looking forward to taking a look around. It was close and on the way to Amsterdam so why not?

We got to the train station in Ghent and were immediately lost outside. This was the first contact we had with public buses/trams so I'm reasonably certain we got away with not paying for any tram fares at all in Ghent due to our extreme ignorance and their system's extreme reliance on the honor system. We got some information from a kind stranger on the tram who should really have run for chamber of commerce king or whatever that office is that totally exists in every city. He told us which stop to get out for the castle, pointed out the bar nearby that used to function as an actual gallows (please don't ask me how to pronounce it), and that Ghent was a party city and really, what else do travelers need to know?

We made our way into the castle and thankfully were able to drop off our heavy bags. Here are some photos I took of the city from the castle. It is a really beautiful skyline that, like most other cities in Belgium, seemed very medieval. One side of the castle was blue skied and cloudy, the other was all gray and cold:

I think only a handful of people were touring the castle along with some school kids. Not that we saw any actual kids, just a creepy pile of unattended backpacks in a pile in one empty room which gave me the willies, particularly inside a castle where a LOT of people were tortured. There is a torture museum in this castle.

Can you hear their cries?
Here's a photo of me being scared.

But like, scared lite. And in my brand new jacket which I haven't lost yet.
The whole castle and museum took about an hour to see and after we finished up we walked around a bit. We stopped in a chocolate shop but all I could seem to find were chocolates from South America and I'm saving that for my actual South American trip. So we continued on around the beautiful city, dodging trams and window shopping until we got hungry and stumbled upon this restaurant called Krokantino where I had an Orval, of course, and we had a delicious lunch al fresco and people watched the, and I really don't think I can overstate this, gorgeous, well-dressed people of Belgium. I contemplated staying a night to check out the nightlife but we had booked a hostel for our first night in Amsterdam so it was time to go. The train from Ghent to Amsterdam would take around three hours and change. I was looking forward to zoning out and staring at the Belgian countryside while saying goodbye to one of the best places I've ever visited. I'm definitely going back.

We got to Amsterdam around 8pm and as we spilled out onto the main drag near the central train station I had a few fleeting thoughts. The first one that flitted by was that it was past 8 and still bright outside. The second was that I might die in Amsterdam. The only reason I thought this was because at the very mouth of the station is an immediate roadway that is shared by the following: cars, motorcycles, bicycles, pedestrians and trams, all moving in one simultaneous rush forward. And I wasn't oriented enough to understand where to cross, when to cross and at what point I should scream in fear for my life. Combined with my travel fatigue and 900 pound backpack and we had an interesting ten minute walk to the hostel. The path to the hostel led us right to the heart of the red light district. For those unaware of what this is I'll simplify: it is a touristy neighborhood of Amsterdam where there are prostitutes hanging out in the street facing windows like mobile mannequins with sad eyes. Aside from all the prostitutes, it is really a lively area of the city which I'm positive I would have appreciated more had I not been lost and worried about being run over by something.

At long last we arrived at the hostel which was way more a stereotypical "youth" hostel than the one in Bruges. As the pub crawl organized by this hostel was just outside and things were getting raucous for that group of young drunkards, I thought fondly of my own very recent sojourn to a few bars in the company of strangers. As I heard a loud belch that greeted us as we entered the very loud bar adjoining the hostel, I realized that everyone is the same. And that one pub crawl a year would do for me.

We were checked in to the hostel by a dreadlocked Australian and we were to spend the night in the room with eight other strangers who had all already checked in; each bed was taken by the time we got to our rooms. It was our intention to find some street food and go have a drink in a nearby bar since we had to get up and out early to check in to our apartment the next morning. The best laid plans...

It was pissing rain as we walked outside and cold so we wandered a bit around the close streets of   De Wallen which looked like this, although this is not my picture:

...but it may as well be. Just picture this plus a downpour.
And we walked (quickly) to what we assumed was the end of the neighborhood and decided to turn back to get dry and warm. We did find a cone of fries which the Dutch apparently fry twice in order to get that flavor of fries that is, how shall I put this eloquently? Effing delicious.

We ended up back the hostel's bar where it was loud and crowded and full of fellow foreigners. We had a few drinks and the most notable thing about that bar was the, what I'm assuming, very, very high bartender who was so manic, quick and gruff that watching him bounce around the bar was like watching a video on fast forward. Also, he picked his nose quite a few times. Like digging for gold style picking. We decided to leave after seeing that and went to a place right down the street. It was a lot less rowdy in there and much more my speed. We ended up talking to a German guy with dreads (a very popular style in that neighborhood, apparently). I also encountered the biggest man I've ever met in my life who was an 18 year old from Mississippi who plays for Ole Miss (I still have some Louisiana in me and I know how big of a deal that is). He was sort of wandering around Amsterdam with some friends and a family member he told us was a male model but we never did see the guy. He was adorable in that "I'm 18 and far away from home and I need to talk to and see everyone and everything." He was literally approaching everyone in the bar at that point and when a 7 foot something extremely large man approaches you, you remember it.

I also had a very, very long conversation with an Irish guy named Aaron while Lauren and his friend played pool. He was one of the smartest people I've ever met and we talked about Ireland and New York and politics and Samuel Beckett and F.Scott Fitzgerald and we bonded over bringing too many books with us on our respective trips. If my life was in fact a romantic comedy, this would have been the meet/cute. And my life IS a movie, it's just not that kind. The title of my movie is "Too Old and Drunk: A Non-Romance." Still, I wish I had gotten his last name because he was really nice to talk to. So we said our goodbyes at around 5 am and naturally it was bright as noonday outside. Our room was a two minute walk away and naturally all of our bunkmates were sane and fast asleep. The only issue was that there was a warm body in my bed.

Convinced I had the wrong room/bed I just stood there for a moment, staring at the mowhawked head that lay snoring atop my pillow. Lauren poked him with her finger and he apologized for sleeping in the wrong bed but that it was "too dark" in the room so he got lost which I thought was funny. Luckily his bed was empty and I just crashed in that, fully dressed, for about three hours before we had to check out and head to our apartment. It was a very fly-by-night stay in the hostel and as we packed our stuff up I met the guy who took my bed and he was a very cool guy from South Africa so I forgave him. Plus, I had neither time nor energy to hold a minor grudge; there was another waffle to consume and Amsterdam to explore.

The riverting, gripping journey continues in the next post which promises adventures in museums, canals and mispronouncing Dutch. Whatta cliffhanger.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Belgium Part 3: Mannequin Peas and Broozhe

It doesn't happen often but the last night I was in Brussels, as I got to bed, my watch read 7 a.m.When my eyes slogged open three hours later, in time to get checked out of the apartment, I realized why I don't let that happen often; it is a terrible idea. Also, I'm too old for that. I packed my stuff up as quietly and gently as possible, all the while envisioning large gallons of water and coffee and a fresh, hot street waffle as a reward. If anything could make lugging my bag through the cobblestone streets of Brussels to the train station bearable, it was going to be that waffle.

We didn't have a chance to see the darling of Brussels, the Mannekin Pis the day before so we wanted to take a look before leaving the city. We stopped to get both a waffle and a coffee on the way and I can't say I've ever enjoyed something so deeply, with such aplomb than that moment on the street with a 30 pound backpack on my back. And thus was born another favorite moment of mine, apart from the splitting headache, nauseated feeling and the shame and regret that is the quintessential hangover.

Aaaaanyway, here is the photo I took of the Mannekin Pis, a landmark that, much like the Mona Lisa, is way smaller than I envisioned but just as crowded around:

You can't see it there, but he's peeing and he has been peeing since the 17th century. I enjoyed the legends about him, my favorite being that he was a two year old lord who peed on the enemy in a battlefield. My kind of kid.

A bit further down the block we saw this graffiti on the side of a building:

And while I appreciate the play on words, puns make it nearly impossible to Google the thing you want to really advertise. When you search for Manneken Peace the statue just comes up. Oh well. It was time to leave Brussels, a city that wowed me, filled as it is of people that are interesting and fun and the beer and the waffles and ohhhhh I need to go back.

We eventually, if aimlessly, made it to the train station and were on our way to Bruges (which is pronounced Broozhe, something I didn't know until visiting there...instead I was saying Bruise-jes like a dummy) for an overnight stay. It was going to be my first time staying in a hostel so I was little nervous but I'm glad Lauren was with me. She knew the ropes. We got to Bruges in about an hour and walked to the hostel which took about ten glorious minutes of meandering, a bit lost through little enclosures and cobblestone streets. It was a beautiful day and my first impression of Bruges was that it was like walking through a medieval storybook.

We got to the hostel and had booked a private room and I was pleasantly surprised at our accommodations. We stayed at this hostel, which I wholeheartedly recommend for location, comfort and affordability. Staying in hostels, as I would later find out, is the absolute best way to meet other people. There are usually tons of organized activities and free tours and, if  you are lucky enough to be in Belgium, beer tastings. Our plan was to stroll around Bruges, have a leisurely lunch and do the beer tasting.

The layout of the main room of the hostel is set up to look like a large living room, albeit one with a full bar in the center of it. As we sat waiting for our room to be ready so we could drop our bags off, I noticed there was a little library housed inside an old display cabinet. I left a copy of the book I had finished on the plane and was very tempted to take one to replace it. Then I remembered how heavy my bag already was so I decided against it. People were coming and going in the room, many of them fellow Americans but a lot of people were from everywhere in the world, which isn't something that happens to me everyday.

We had a lovely lunch at Aquarel  and people watched, again in awe of how put together and good looking everyone seemed. I mean is it vacation eyes? It can't be, right? After lunch we meandered the city for a few hours, eventually ending up back at the hostel to rest for a spell before...ingesting more beer. 

The beer tasting was being held at the Lybeer's sister hostel, Bauhaus which is located on what seemed like the other end of the earth in the city. If the hostel we chose was on the quiet, reserved side, this one seemed like the Bohemian younger brother. There was a lively bar attached to it that was already very busy by the time got there. We arrived late but not too late for the first taste of Duvel, which turned out to be another one of my favorites. Orval and Duvel...if I had a pair of dachshunds, that's what I'd name 'em. The tasting was being run by a woman, her name escapes me, who was from Chile and had immigrated to Belgium which has now become my immigrate to Belgium. She was knowledgeable and funny and friendly. The other tasting attendees, most of whom were American were by and large obnoxious except for the three young women next to us. They were friendly and smart and two of them were college friends traveling together and one was a Canadian expat living in Ireland and traveling alone. I enjoyed talking to them and hearing about their itineraries and adventures. When we arrived we were told about a pub crawl that was going to take place later on that evening. Lauren and I had decided against it, thinking we could save our 15 euro or however much it cost and tour the city alone. Then we drank a bunch of beer (are beer tastings universally just full glasses/bottles of beer or is that just Belgium?) and were cashing in our one free beer (yes, the beer tasting gave you a bunch of beer and then a token for a pint of beer at the bar, you damn LUSHES) when I spotted a very good looking beardy type of guy headed over to us. He told us he would be running the pub crawl and that we should definitely join. And then, like all good looking and charming salesmen, he convinced us to do it. 

Confession: I have never been on a pub crawl before. At least not one that is organized by a company with a set itinerary. I've crawled to pubs. Is that the same thing? I jest. But this was a brand new experience for me. I think I've stated before that I have a deep admiration for Belgian beer. However, what I learned on this pub crawl is that my admiration is just not as manic as it is for some people. I'm happy to sit and enjoy a few drinks over conversation; by and large the people on the pub crawl were on a mission. Being an introvert who enjoys being around extroverts, I got to do one of my favorite things: sit back and observe. It did make me stick out a bit though since most of the group was socializing and having fun in a visible way. I suppose my proclivity to hang back makes people think I'm not enjoying myself when in actuality that is my favorite thing to do. It also left me wide open to meet and talk with our tour guides who were stone cold sober the entire pub crawl. I got a chance to ogle  talk to the guy who sold us on the pub crawl and who smelled like freshly washed linen sheets and was wearing the most stylish outfit I've seen in a long time. We had a good conversation about Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin and obscure graduate school programs. I talked to a man from Brazil who taught me how to say "pleasure to meet you" in Portuguese which, by the way, is spelled totally different than I spelled it in my head.  In the shadow of a lot of chaotic chatter in an underground cave-like bar called 't Poatersgat, I talked to another guide who, again, was well dressed and put together and told me about immigration issues in Belgium since his day job was as a lawyer and interpreter for the government against people seeking asylum. He was the opposite of me, politically, but we talked about Murakami and all was forgiven. I told him he'd do really well if he came to New York and it turns out he already does. 

The night carried on as it will do and here's a deceptively calm photo I took during this pub crawl. If you are imagining, as you look at this photo that the background is calm and quiet, you are totally wrong. A few minutes after this was taken, a young Scottish man was dangling from the lip of that stone bridge for photos. 

One thing I'll say is that I enjoyed how noncommittal the whole evening felt. I wasn't aware of time or place or anything but the people surrounding me and the crisp June night. As we walked to what would be the last bar one of the guides said to me, "It's almost the end. This is where people get really drunk." And, like a hot, bearded, well dressed canary in a beer soaked coal mine, he was correct. Much of the rest of the evening passed by very loudly and very quickly. I remember dancing with a French man who looked, and I'm talking soberly after the rose colored glasses of a month ago, looked like this: 

...but the only reason he looked like that is because EVERYONE OVER THERE LOOKS LIKE THAT. He wore a cowl necked sweater and was pretty much the definition of refined or "reFOINEd" and so imagine my surprise when the club began to play the theme song to the "Fresh Prince of Bel Air" and this man mouthed every single word. I was unaware that the Fresh Prince had made it to overseas airwaves. I'm gonna kinda always remember that. 

One of the guides walked me back to the hostel and before I knew it it was morning in Bruges and nearly time for checkout. Ah, vacation. Where time clumps together like sweaty, old spaghetti. No, wait that is just how I felt when I woke up. Lauren and I checked out of the hostel and walked to have breakfast in this amazing little place called Marie's House which had great coffee and a damn fine croque madame. We sat in the front window and while we ate we saw a few fellow pub crawlers, still crawling but out in the daylight with squinted eyes. The day was cold and gray and I needed a jacket since I lost mine in Brussels. I found one and will probably wear it until it disintegrates. Or until I lose it. We walked to the train station to board a train to Ghent where we would spend an afternoon before arriving in Amsterdam. 

Our trip to Bruges was fly by night but memorable and fun. Thinking back on it now, I would have extended my stay in Bruges because I'd like one more day to wander and maybe take a boat ride. I suppose I'll just have to return. Wait for me, French Prince of Bel Air. (Do you see what I did there?)

Stay tuned for the next installment of my trip blogs (I'm not done yet???) wherein I visit a medieval castle in Ghent and arrive, frazzled, in the Red Light district of Amsterdam. Ooooo.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Brussels day 2: The Waft of the Waffle

So where was I? Oh right, I was fast asleep in Brussels, belly full of mussels and visions of beer bottles dancing in my head. The morning was chilly and cloudy but I was happy. Through each and every decision and coincidence that had happened in my life up until that moment, I found myself in Belgium. It was, therefore, time to ponder some other surrealisms for awhile. To the Magritte museum!

Here are some photos I took during the walk from the apartment to the museum:

I also took a lot of photos of buildings that could have been ancient wartime strongholds or they could have been the Belgian equivalent of a CVS...I know not. I just know that Brussels is full of beautiful buildings.

My favorite Magritte painting, The Lovers is at the MoMA but what could be better than seeing a lovingly curated set of work by an artist in his home country? I wasn't disappointed. This collection incorporates a lot of biographical information and a decent amount of early work and sketches. It is always fascinating to me to trace the development of an artist through their own work. I got the audio guide, which was exhaustive and which also alerted me to a fact I hadn't known before: Magritte insisted his work didn't contain any underlying meaning. In fact, he bristled at the notion that there was any symbolism at all in his work. I mean, fair enough but walking around the museum, absorbing the vivid and intensely surreal legacy Magritte left behind, I felt depressed thinking that it didn't mean anything. So I've decided to believe that his insistence that it didn't was part of the symbolism of the work. I realize that might not make sense but we are talking about an artist who painted this: it doesn't have to.

Next on the agenda was a beer tour. After leaving the museum, we had about half an hour to get to the meeting point for a four hour beer tour and, guided by the sights and smells of the Grand Place, we decided to get our first street waffle. The Grand Place was busting out all over. Seeing all the tourists and hearing the sounds of a hundred different languages spoken is one of my favorite memories of the trip. Then, when the waft of the waffle beckoned, I answered. We stopped randomly at a corner vendor and ordered two liege to go. Not being fancy with sweet foods, I got mine plain; it was my first time after all, I needed to go slow. Below is an accurate dramatization of me after I took my first bite.

It is now and shall remain one of the top three things I've ever eaten. It was so good, in fact, that I tried many many times during the trip to repeat that first taste. However, repeating that first taste was really just chasing the dragon. Here's me eating one early in the morning after a very late night, also on the streets of Brussels:

It was difficult to move and keep going with life after eating that little bit of other dimensional heaven in a thin paper sleeve, but I managed. We made it to the meeting spot for the beer tour just in time.

I have always been a fan of Belgian beer and taking this tour was the top thing I wanted to do in Belgium. Aside from the beer tastings (and I should emphasize that "beer tastings" really meant "an entire bottle of beer, many of which were 8% alcohol and higher), we would get to take a walking tour of the city and visit old pubs and local hangouts. Our tour guide for the day was a very knowledgeable, very handsome and very friendly man named Archimedes. He was born and raised in and around Brussels and even though this was a prescribed tour with stops specially chosen ahead of time, the tour felt like just hanging out with a local.
Our first stop was the Theatre de Toone, one of the oldest pubs in Brussels which, although I don't have exact years, is probably really, really quite mad old. (That's a very official guess.)

Here's a picture I took and one of the first beers which was and remains my favorite beer of all time: Orval.

Not pictured: Archimedes

Want one now.

Our tour group had about 15 people in it, all from different places in the world. The great/terrible thing about this tour is that there was a lot of beer involved. Great because it was Belgian and we were in Belgium; terrible because, fueled by only one albeit superior waffle, sloppy drunkenness was inevitable. Like most things that happen after day drinking, there was an air of absurdity to everything after a specific, at the time, unnoticed moment. For example, we passed this en route from one bar to another:

Those people are topless and/or naked. I would have thought this a false memory but my camera does not lie. The afternoon carried on as it does while drinking with new friends and I had a wonderful time talking and tasting and learning about beer. Archimedes also threw in a lot of fun historical facts about the places we walked by and the pubs we visited. He also had bee stung lips. Did I mention that?
Anyway, here's a picture of me and Lauren at the last stop:

That plate of cheese and meat was the only thing we had to eat aside from waffle.

The beer in those glasses was the last one of the tour. It was 11% alcohol. What followed after that snap was taken is best recounted in bulleted format, mainly because that is how I "remember" it: in vague statements of memory as opposed to a coherent plot with a beginning, middle and end. Think of this as slightly longer tweets. So here's what happened, as I recall:

  • The tour wrapped up at the bar where we are sitting in the picture above. The tour members lingered here for another beer (or at least ten of us did) and we got to know each other in that drunken way that makes everyone an old friend.
  • Lauren befriended a group of French men on vacation that were not part of our group but they were so friendly and fun and they absorbed us into their plans (after another hour or two of drinking). I remember their first names and they were all super French names like Luc and Jean and Henri? Maybe. One of them was wearing a Pulp Fiction tshirt and we had a long, meandering conversation about Quentin Tarantino during which I kept trying to get him to say "Tarantino" over and over again because the French accent plus that name amused me. 
  • The following phrases were said over 500 times in the course of a few hours: Is good for you? and You unnerstand? You can read those in both an American and French accent if you like. 
  • I was put under enormous pressure, after the French guys found out my profession, to come up with the names of ten French authors. For the first 20 minutes I drew a COMPLETE blank. I literally could only think of the names of Belgian beers and, because I was really hungry at that point, food items. But I came through in the clutch and I mention this only because I think I discovered my super power: naming French authors after 20 minutes after drinking too much. It's my cross to bear.
  • Realizing none of us had eaten, we wandered away from the bar to get some food. It must have been very late at this point because all the restaurants were closing up, though seeing as the sun does not set in Brussels until about 11pm, I have no idea what time it was. After wandering for, oh let's say about two weeks, we found a restaurant willing to serve us but we only had two choices: croque monsieur and spaghetti. Oddly specific yet random menu.
  • This restaurant holds two memories for me. It is the place where a) I last remember having my jacket with me and b) Lauren inspired the entire restaurant to sing a Spanish song. It was a pretty crowded restaurant too so the mood was likely...let's go with raucous. 
  • After finishing up dinner we walked to the location of a big music festival that was happening in Brussels earlier that day. The French guys wanted to see if it was still happening but sadly, it was not. Here's a picture I took of the festival grounds. Not a particularly good one but one that serves as proof that I went there.  
    I think that's one of our new French friends in the distance but who knows?
  • So we then decided to go dancing. I mean, why not? When in Brussels... We ended up getting rejected from one place because, seeing as we are not club goers at all, we were dressed very down in sneakers and jeans. Eventually we ended up at a club that was one of the most stereotypically European places I've ever been to. Especially if it was 1988. It was very late 80s inside that place, the name of which, I have no idea. I just know there was a bright pink and blue neon sign hanging on the wall that reminded me of Demi Moore's apartment in St. Elmo's Fire.  
The club we went to.

  • This club was the first time I realized that you have to pay to use the toilets in many places in Belgium. Something that would vex me for the rest of the trip.
  • We left the club and walked out into sunshine. That's not a measure of how late it was but rather how eternal the daylight is in Brussels. Oh and it was also a measure of how you can really convince yourself that you are younger than you are in reality if you try really hard. 
  • In the cab on the way home our driver drove down a street backwards at a not slow speed and my life flashed before my eyes. That happens to me in New York cabs but at the very least they are driving in a forward direction in NY! After he stopped, a police officer came up to his window with what I was certain was going to be a ticket or some kind of yelling match. Instead he spoke to him in Dutch with what I assume was the verbal equivalent of a jovial pat on the head. 
  • I took this photo on the walk back to the apartment. Apparently Brussels also never sleeps as there were tons of people still milling about at that hour: 

We were due to leave the next (or that same) day and head off to Bruges for a night on our way to Amsterdam. So it was time to sleep for a few hours before leaving beautiful Brussels. I know I promised the peeing boy statue but that will have to wait until part 3: Goodbye Brussels/Hello Bruges, the continuation of a series that I'm positive no one in their right mind is still reading.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Belgium blog 1: Spades and Hangovers

My entire self went away on vacation but only my body came back. And it works in my favor since I got super sick upon my return. In fact, a full two weeks after my return home, I'm still erupting intermittently. Sometimes it is from coughing and sneezing, other times it is from that dull, soundless buzz that begins in one's soul upon landing back home after vacation. I did so many things in the eight days I was in Belgium and in Amsterdam. One of those things was utterly abandoning my plan to keep exhaustive notes for the purpose of recording my experiences in this blog. But I do that every time I go away. (See Paris, Spain, Seattle blogs) I do that, in fact, with every experience I want to put words to...I become hyper absorbed and only get the blurred edges of the experience in any tangible record. I suppose that's a hazard of living in the moment: forgetting that moment as soon as its over. Not forgetting...hazily remembering.

As it turns out, woman cannot live on Belgian beer alone. I learned this in eight days, days during which I traveled with my friend Lauren, often forgetting to eat (something that never happens at home) in favor of taking in all the sights and sounds of one of the most beautiful places I've ever been to thus far in my life. It wasn't for lack of trying...I tried to live on that nectar, painstakingly brewed by men of God, painstakingly enjoyed by men who looked like gods, painstakingly flying me across entire afternoons and nights and plopping me down in the morning with a painstakingly painful pain in my head saying "oh dear god." I traveled this year in the hope of eradicating some of the bad mojo of last year and the pretty awful things that have happened in my life thus far this year. I wanted adventure and new experiences which is all I pretty much ever want out of life and I got it, in spades. Spades and hangovers.

Speaking of, I don't know who is reading this. If you are the kind of person who looks at a hungover traveler with empathy and sympathy, I say thank you and let's get a beer(s) sometime. If you are a person who says things like "you do it to yourself and you deserve it", to you I say...worth it. It was all worth it.

Forthwith, I offer some of the memories, viewed through smudged lenses; I can see them clearly, but I'm going to have to squint.

It started at the airport when I dined alone, storing up fat for my 8 hour flight to Amsterdam and the three hour train ride to Brussels that followed immediately afterward. The plan was to meet Lauren at Centraal Station in Brussels and commence being the fuck out of NYC. I overheard a conversation between two businessmen who were speaking to each other in veiled metaphors and through drowsy eyes. I could’ve been wrong, but I’m reasonably certain they were coworkers who wanted to sleep together. I mean I could be projecting but everything sounded like innuendo. Their southern accents gave away that they were waiting for a flight home; their ordering of more than one glass of wine in the middle of JFK gave away some hint of wanting to not be themselves. Who knows?  I spent my entire dinner dropping eaves and riding that undeniable, incomparable feeling of being on my way to a new country. I paid for my RIDICULOUSLY expensive salad and wine with the smug air of someone with places to go. So what if my place to go was a dirty airport gate with a bunch of cranky travelers? I would enter that metal tube, be propelled across the ocean and wake up in motherfucking Holland. In yo face, I guess?

I was flying on the same airline I usually take, due to its reasonable prices and familiarity. It's an Irish airline and as a result, lilting Irish accents (and accompanying pissed off countenances) remind me of the happiest times of my adult life. My plan was to finish reading my book, delve into an overpriced airline cocktail and fall peacefully asleep behind an eyemask and my ear buds.

However, it was not to be. If you know of an unpleasant flight experience cliché, rest assured that all of them happened on my flight to Amsterdam.
Crying baby? Check.
Angry seat neighbors? Check.
Kicking on the back of my seat for the entire flight? Check, check, check, kick, kick, …..

But still, I felt heartened after I claimed my seat and the rest of the plane boarded: no one sat in the seat next to me on one side. I could already envision stretching out and chillaxing on the aisle! I would wait a polite amount of time and simply slide on over. Then came the announcement that we were delayed while waiting for two more passengers.

Sad trumpet sound

Ok, I’d be stuck in the middle. It wouldn’t be the first time. I could handle it. And then came another bad flight cliche, personified: the big guy. I don't mean fat, I mean BIG. This guy didn't walk, he lumbered. And he was the guy I'd be "sharing" an armrest with for the flight, which was feeling longer by the second. I felt bad being annoyed; it wasn't his fault that my arm was going to hurt. Plus he was a nice guy, if a bit talkative. So here's what I learned about the first new person I met on this trip (in the first 20 minutes after takeoff):

His name was Dominick and he was from Detroit
He hadn’t slept in two days and was very, very chatty as a result of over fatigue
He was travelling with a friend to Brussels for a large outdoor music festival
He snores
He took control of our shared armrest and a few inches of my seat
As nice as he was, I will always associate him with a light cramp in my left arm

First impressions are so hard to dispel. My first impressions of Dominick lead me to believe he knows this. Some part of some part of him knows that I will always associate the memory of the nice man who sat next to me with a persistent, mild cramp in my left arm. That and a heavy, heavy Midwestern accent. He was an amiable fellow so I forgave the snoring; I was too distracted by the annoying baby in front of me.

We landed a bit late which means I had 30 minutes instead of 50 minutes to make my connecting flight from Dublin to Amsterdam. Dublin airport is the airport I know the best since all of my international flights connect through there. I've been there often enough to have a favorite shop. But a visit there was not meant to be. I just made the connecting flight and passed an uneventful two hours in the air and finally I landed in Amsterdam.

The genius of the Amsterdam airport cannot be overstated. The major train hub is right underneath the airport. That right there is some city planning genius. After some massive confusion, largely due to my lack of sleep (THANKS DOMINICK) I found the ticket booth for the trains and within an hour after landing, I was on my way to Brussels.

It was the middle of a Friday afternoon and I was on a commuter train so it was largely empty and, most notably, largely silent. I couldn't help the comparison between commuter trains here in NY and that one from Amsterdam to cell phones, no garbage everywhere in the train. It was pretty amazing. As for the scenery, it was along this first (of many) train rides that I caught a glimpse of my first windmill. And here I'd normally link a photograph of it excepting I cannot find the one I took which leads me to believe that I didn't take one. I think I just looked at it and marveled, in the way that first time visitors to NYC see yellow cabs and marvel. I guess I just kicked it old school and have a memory of seeing something without the filter of my camera. A thing like that...

I made it to the Brussels train station and was instantly confused. I've said it before  and I'll say it again: train stations in foreign countries confound and startle me. Perhaps in my past life, something terrible happened to me in a train station. I'll never know. Thank goodness Lauren spotted me, likely looking like a child with instructions stapled to my backpack and greeted me with the biggest smile and hug. VACATION COMMENCE.

We made our way (a confused, roundabout, turned around way) through Grand Place to our rented apartment. I was kind of glad we got lost because it gave me a good glimpse of a bustling Brussels. My first impressions were how stately all the buildings were and how lively the area seemed.

 We also encountered a local man in a business suit who saw we were lost and offered to walk us to where we needed to be so, friendliness too. It was cold for June and overcast when I got there but I prefer a chill in the air to the sweaty mess I had left back home.

When we arrived at the apartment I was greeted by something I have encountered so many times in Europe: the old mixed with the new (ish). Here's a photo of the entrance to our apartment:

This alley was so mysterious and ancient looking that several passerby would pause out of curiosity to see what could be down there. And here is what awaited at the end of that passage:

A 1980s mall. Our apartment was situated on the 2nd floor of this building, right above a movie theater. Entering that lacquered pantheon to suburban shopping after coming from the medieval decor of the buildings just outside it was jarring and unexpected, but very amusing. We got to the apartment and Lauren, bless her heart had beer and cheese and bread waiting for me. Never forget that first taste of food in a new place, it hearkens what dreams may come.

The apartment we chose was in the middle of town but very low budget. The bathroom was the size of a cubby hole and strangely, when the light switch turned on, the toilet rumbled. I can't explain it, only to say it happened and I have witnesses.

It was decided that we'd have a quiet night (literally the only quiet night of this entire trip) and it was with extreme pleasure that I realized I was in Brussels and I would have mussels. By god, I would have mussels.

Moules. Not pictured: frites.

I'm going to drop some technical terminology to describe this first meal so get ready. It was what people call fucking delicious. We dined al fresco on a cobblestone street and watched a parade of tourists speaking every language and we saw a group of young men, one of whom was dressed as a bottle of Budweiser. I mention this because he will make an appearance in the sequel to the Brussels blogs. After dinner we took part in what I call my absolute favorite thing on earth to do which is meandering through a new city. It was here that I first noticed that people in Brussels are pretty. Pretty people made many appearances during my trip. So there's that. Fatigue settled in and soon after arriving back home, I fell into a deep sleep only to be awoken by drunken voices coming from the shopping mall below. They were speaking Dutch or German, or both or either of those languages with a heavy drunk accent. In my half sleep I heard the conclusion of their raucousness as "Gude nacht, Sven" followed by a door slamming. I pictured poor Sven, left outside in the shopping mall at 5am by his no good friends. Because that is clearly what was said and I can be certain of that because I'd had a lot of wine and was half asleep. So Sven, if you are reading this (and you exist) this one is for you. Gude nacht, sweet Sven.

That's way too much to read. If you are still reading this, hello. I like you. As more than just a friend.

The adventures will continue with day 2 in Brussels, as soon as I get around to writing it. I'm hoping it doesn't take me another two months to update this. Keep hope alive. Here's a preview sentence: Brussels day two will include: the street waffle made by God, a four hour beer tour, a group of French men who quizzed me on my knowledge of French lit (I won, I think), a true Euro dance club, the loss of my jacket and small statue of a peeing boy. Stay tuned.