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.

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