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.

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