So, this is how it began: a fellow au pair friend of mine mentioned in passing one day that she was spending her upcoming weekend seeing Brussels, Ghent, and Brugge. I, being the incredibly direct person that I seem to be now, invited myself along. On the day before the day we were to depart, just about at midnight there is me in my apartment sitting on my bed booking a hostel and two BlaBla Car rides to and from Brussels. It was done, I was going.
Immediately after the fact I thought I had made a terrible mistake. In semi-hysteria I texted my friend back in L.A., who was just getting ready to start her Senior year of Undergrad, venting about the lack of research I'd done and how tons of things could go wrong once I stepped out of my Parisian bubble of security.
And she told me this: "Paris wasn't always a bubble." I realized that if I wanted to take full advantage of being in Europe this year than I would have to confront my fear of traveling or else I would never see anything cool.
So, here I go, confronting my fears.
chapter 1: brussels
Nicole and I, left in an Uber from my apartment at 5:20(ish)am on a Saturday, the Uber dropped us off at Gare de Lyon around 5:40. We had 20 Minutes to spare before we were to meet our BlaBla Car driver. The problem was that our meet up point was not Gare de Lyon but Porte de Bagnole, which was approximately 25-30 minutes away. We hefted it onto a bus and silently willed it to go faster making it with just minutes to spare before our ride showed up.
From there we drove 2 1/2 hours from Paris to Belgium waiting rather anxiously for the moment when we'd have to present our passports to get it that stamp that proved we'd actually left France. Much to our chagrin though, that time never came. In fact, we did not need our passports the entire trip. We'd both left France and entered Belgium without so much of a bonjour. The differences between the United States and European border control was not lost on the two of us.
Nicole and I were dropped off in Braine l'Alleud (a neighboring suburban town just outside of Brussels) around 10:30 (ish). Which was sort of a miracle in and of itself because our BlaBla car driver, a pianist doing her M1 in Paris had never driven to Brussels, had no idea how to get there, and lost her data (and therefore her ability to navigate) once we'd left France. From Braine l'Alleud we bought a 6 euro (them student discounts though) train ticket to Brussel's city center.
Before we get to Brussels though, I have some words to say about Braine l'Alleud.
I'm quite certain that whenever I think back on the brief time spent in this tiny place I will cringe a little. I will always think of how "Barbie Girl" was blasting from one of the homes while Nicole and I were walking around. This mental image will forever be in my mind and in a way that theme song will forever mar my image of Braine l'Alleud which just doesn't seem like a real place in my mind because of that song.
Now that that's done: onto Brussels. Firstly, bravo on your train system Europe. Secondly, United States take note.
The first thing I adored about Brussels was the cobblestones. Paris has cobblestones as well, yes, but they are not as noticeable, what I mean by that is that in Brussels, Ghent, and Brugge, you could feel the shape of each stone you were stepping on. And that's just cool. In certain areas where stones were missing you could see that each stone was placed in the ground and the gaps then filled in with dirt and unlike the fan pattern some streets have in Paris the stones here are all uniformly rectangular and placed simply in lines.
The next thing I loved about Brussels was that chocolate could be found on literally every street. This morning I counted just how many chocolatiers I had visited over that weekend and was quite surprised to find I'd only visited 10. It felt like Our entire trip was me dragging Nicole from chocolate shop to chocolate shop.
What was most striking about Brussels was how familiar the town felt to me. It was different from Paris in shape and size, yes, but the storefronts were the same. Small one-level boutiques attached to larger buildings. More buildings were made of bricks here than in Paris but the churches looked very much like the ones you'd find France.
At some point during the day after dancing a bit at a random concert we found that was playing mashups of American top 40 hits Nicole and I remembered that we had to check into our hostel. So with 30 minutes to spare find our hostel and discover a square room with white walls, a small bathroom, tiny balcony, and three bunkbeds. The one girl we talked to was on vacation from school visiting Belgium from Denmark, she asked us a lot about the L.A. culture and the presidential candidates. (A standard question I get over here.) That night all Nicole and I did was buy more chocolate and watch War Dogs in a movie theater with both French and Dutch subtitles.
chapter 2: ghent
By 12pm the next day Nicole and I we at the train station heading towards Ghent. It took nearly over an hour to arrive at the city center and once there I was quite dumbfounded. Here spread before me was a proper medieval town, the likes of which the child in you imagines are only in Disney movies and bad historically inaccurate History Channel shows. The streets were cobble-stoned, the buildings old and composed of mainly red bricks and thick slabs of rough weathered wood. There were horse-drawn carriages and venders in wooden brightly painted wagon carts selling candies and then there was the castle that Nicole and I had just randomly came upon in our awe of this new world we'd entered into.
The entire day at Ghent was spent on a mission: we were trying to find this one spot where some unknown photographer had taken this picture we'd found on Google Images. And in our pursuit of this one very photogenic spot we'd gotten lost once, been navigated to a pitiful looking river, found a dive bar near an elementary school, and stumbled, quite literally I tripped lightly over a cobblestone, looked up and thought to myself: "Is that a castle?"
We tried two things in Ghent, traditional candies, from one of the aforementioned carts, which they call 'Noses' which they named so because they apparently resemble human noses. They honestly just looked like cones to me; however, I would not if I were you ask why they are called 'Noses' because you may or may not get lightly teased.
chapter 3: brugge
We left Ghent around 4 pm for Brugge arriving just as the golden hour settled in. This particular time in the day when the sun begins its descent is my favorite. A glow seems to settle on the world and it's magical.
We spent a long time in Brugge just wandering lazily around the town, strolling alongside their river, and be holding the gilded buildings we swore we'd seen replicas of in Paris.
We made it eventually to the market center just as the sun and temperature was fully setting. Webought chocolate from one of few shops that were open and sat next to a moment of a Dutch explorer who's name escapes me now, Yelping for a traditional Brugge restaurant.
To escape the cold we decide simply to go to one of the overpriced tourist traps nearby, where the food was predictably overpriced and sub-par. During dinner the waiter, an Albanian man named Artie, and Nicole trade wise-cracks. Nicole, teasing that I'm free after 10pm and Artie playing along that he gets off at 10:30pm. Me, being the overt person I am, simply sit there squirming, thinking up a way to make Nicole pay for this (all in good fun, of course).
The last of our bus fare money is spent giving this Alabian a 5€ tip-- for reasons I still do not understand-- and have to walk back to the train station through a semi-lit park. (I am a big enough person to admit that perfect choices may not have been made during this trip.) This is where it happens, at some point during this walk one of the many things Nicole says to me is just too much and I, well, I loose it.
And by 'it' I mean, control over my bladder, as I'm doubling over in hysterical laughter in the deemly-lit park in Brugge I faintly realize that a waterfall is running down my legs. And indeed it was a waterfall because my pants were soaked down to my knees. After the initial euphoria wears off I am mortified and contemple briefly, jumping into a nearby water fountain. In hind sight I really ought to have gone into that water fountain because for the entire train ride I smelled like a seasoned homeless person.
So, there I am on platform 9 with both my and Nicole's cadarigns tied around my waist, and there Nicole, is dying in laughter. To give her credit, this is always the moment that I realized we'd be friends for a while, because when you learn that your travel partner has peed herself and you offer no judgement but instead sacrifice your cardigan for her, well, it forms a very unique bond that is hard to break.
Boarding the last train out of Brugge I think about the events of the weekend and I remember thinking " So this is how we part Brugge, with pants that I'll have to wash twice before wearing again and itchy thighs.
chapter 4: the way back
We wake up at 5:30am again, shuffle obnoxiously through our hostel room changing and stuffing things into our backpacks. We take an Uber to the meet up point: Zaventam train station and wait.
Our BlaBla car driver, a mid-20-something man from Toulouse, arrives relatively on time in a rusted red van. When he opens the trunk so we can put our things in there Nicole and I notice that their are two mattresses, a blanket, and pillow back there.
What I would have given to have our expressions captured. Naturally we decide to not put our bags in his bedroom and instead occupy the length of the middle seat. In a gentlemanly fashion, the man with the red van from Toulouse offers us his blanket; a fluffy over-stuffed feather montrosity cloaked in a black duvet.
I bring up the route to Paris on my phone and track our way back to civilization where cars are normally tiny faits and therefore incapable of housing a mans bedroom.
At some point I fall asleep, I know I must have done this because I am awaken by a loud sort of musical collaboration that involves a banjo, electric violin, acoustic guitar, screamo vocals which randomly counted to 5 in German, and a drum. Apparently it was a soundtrack to a Serbian movie called White Cat Black Cat.
By the time we were dropped off in Paris I was swearing to never get into a Bla Bla car again and was extremely greatful for the rigid normality of the Monday full of classes and babysitting that occurred.