I landed at the Cherleroi – Brussels airport, about an hour’s drive outside of the city (another little RyanAir head fake, as they don’t mention that the airports they fly are typically an hour or more further than the city’s “main” airport).
Here I was picked up by Arend Jan, an awesome Dutch guy who I’d met in Australia on the mini-bus to Rainbow Beach. Here we’d been grouped together for our trip to Fraser Island – which was one of the funnest trips this year – and ended up spending almost a week together in total. In fact, becoming deathly ill after Fraser, AJ really saved my ass by looking after me for a couple of days while I couldn’t even get out of bed. Suffice to say we became good friends and he invited me to visit when I made it to Europe.
AJ took me back to his family’s house in Brussels, where he is living for the summer until resuming his studies this fall. I spent two nights at their beautiful home in a very comfortable guest room. Right after dropping my bags we went into the city center, going for a feed and then a lively evening at Delirium Cafe, which in 2010 earned the Guinness World Record for most beers available – 2010. Lively joint, recommended.
The next day was AJ’s little brother’s high school graduation, and with the family out for the day I was rocking solo. Brussels (and Belgium) is a truly beautiful place, a large and bustling city, yet with a smaller town feel without suffocating or stifling, surrounded by shady green forests.
I saw some fantastic sights there, including the Cinquantenaire triumphal arch, the military museum, and of course the Manneken Pis – while in most other places in the world, searching for a little boy peeing would put you in prison.
Also had the most amazing coincidence. Toward the end of the day I was sitting on a park bench having a sandwich and a little rest, and out of nowhere, I see Sabine walking right in front of me – a gal who I’d met in Japanworking with It’s Not Just Mud over four months earlier! Seeing the opportunity and having my camera out I managed to get a couple of fantastic shots of her shock as I called her name and she recognized me.
One very interesting thing I learned about Belgium, and especially in Brussels, is the disparaging difference of language. Dutch and French are both official languages, but there is a strong clash between what language is spoken and where. The Dutch contingent strongly holds that Dutch should be spoken in Brussels. In fact there are even signs in many neighborhoods reading to the effect of: “Dutch is spoken in this neighborhood.”
I learned a lot of other really interesting things about Belgium, being a capital that has essentially been without unified government for the better part of two years, and yet also the headquarters of the United Nations. A beautiful and fascinating place.
AJ and I spent another night out on the town, paying another visit to Delirium and enjoying a few Tremens (“world’s best beer”) before leaving the next morning.
Even though I’d been there over a week, it It finally occurred to me that I’m in Europe. After being in Asia for four months, capped off by India, reality now is very different. Being in Europe where people sit down and drink coffee at cafes and chill out and there aren’t people constantly approaching you and trying to sell you shit and madness. I sat there and realized….I’m having culture shock. Never thought it would be here.
AJ and I drove to Breda, where I said goodbye and hopped on my train to Amsterdam. I arrived in Central Station, from where I had to navigate the local trains to find my new hostel: The Lucky Lake.
This was probably my favorite place to stay this year. While it’s quite a ways out of town – 15 minutes by train and another 15 minutes by shuttle – the place is just awesome. It’s almost like a campsite out in the countryside, but actually an RV park with a huge ring of small caravans. Checking in you’re lead to your own little comfy caravan with a bed, some shelves, small closet and bench seat. There’s a well-equipped outdoor kitchen and a common lounge in the middle, free breakfast, a nearby lake, really friendly staff and awesome travelers. I met all sorts of cool people from around Europe – Germany, England, Israel and elsewhere – and had a fabulous stay there.
Each day I went into the city exploring various places and just walking through the network of streets and canals. The main highlights were the Ann Frank House and the Van Gough Museum, where the original of my favorite painting was on display: Van Gough’s “Crows and a Wheat Field.” I’m not much of an art critic, and while I enjoy an occasional visit to an art gallery, I’m not one to spend hours looking at art. I have to say though, seeing this painting in person absolutely blew me away. I must have stared at it for 15 minutes straight, and later came back to it for another five minutes. It struck me directly. So that’s why it’s a masterpiece.
The Ann Frank House was also an experience, although while touring the now-museum I kept forgetting that I was walking through the house where the families had actually been hiding decades before. Nonetheless it was worth the 45 minute wait in line.
And of course, there was the famous Red Light District. Yes, it’s there. I don’t know why I had expected this to be a single street in a small area, but it’s really quite large. For blocks and blocks you can walk around and see women in full-size windows beckoning you to come in and try their wares. And the famous coffee shops of Amsterdam are everywhere to be found.
Had a great last day out with my new Israeli buddies before moving again.
I arrived by bus from Amsterdam to Paris, then managed to make it to my hostel with a little effort.
That night I met up with Sabine, who I learned would be in Paris after I ran into her at the park in Brussels. I joined a few of her friends for coffee and dessert and then we walked down the river front checking out the sights, including this big tower that’s apparently pretty popular.
The next day I met up with my mom’s next-door neighbors, Gary and Sandy, who live in Paris about three months a year. They took me around on the local circuit riding buses and trains and showing me all over the city.
Later that night I met up with Sam, daughter of Nora, my mom’s colleague who I’d met in Vietnam. Sam has been living in Paris for four years now and has built a really nice community for herself. She has a good job, a great group of friends, and lots of creative ideas, including an excellent website that her and a friend built to help ex-pats transition to living in Paris. We had a very nice time together, and in fact she invited me to join her at a friends the following night for a dinner and game night, which I did and had a blast.
I spent another day and a half going around the city and seeing very few of the many sights. I got a lot of foot traffic in Paris.
By this time I was pretty anxious to get myself to Spain. I’d been trying to set myself up with a workaway, which is a website the connects people for the exchange of volunteer work for meals and accommodation. Workaway hosts might be a family, a hostel or anyone else in need of help with something, who create an online profile about themselves, the type of work they’re looking for, and the kind of accommodation they are offering. Workaway volunteers can then search through these hosts by country/region and offer their services.
I was pretty set on doing this in Spain for a couple of reasons: first, the money is running low; by doing a workaway I could live in Spain for virtually free. Second, I’d have a chance to practice my Spanish. Not to mention I’d have some spare time to get back on my exercise routine and catch up on my writing.
By this time I’d sent over 20 workaway requests without finding a match, but at the same time I was spending 60 or more euros a day in Paris. I had to get down to Spain so I’d be ready when a workaway presented itself and to get out of one of the most expensive cities in the world. I figured I would just go to Madrid, the capital of Spain where I’d be able to reach anywhere in a day on short notice.
On what I had planned to be my last day in Paris I was having trouble booking my train ticket to Madrid, so decided to go to the train station and just buy the ticket. Despite finding availability online, by the time I got to the station and waited through the queue, the tickets for Madrid were sold out. Damn. Back to my hostel empty-handed.
Since this was to be an overnight train for that evening, I now had to stay in Paris for one more night. Back again at my hostel I asked if I could extend for another night, but by then they were booked entirely for the evening. Great.
Now I had to find a place to sleep. I went online and found another hostel, then packed it up and made the journey to Montmarte, in another part of the city. After only a bit of wandering to find the place I get checked in. It then took me 30 minutes to connect to the wireless, but finally online I went for my backup plan: a RyanAir flight from Madrid to Paris the next morning. I’d checked before going to the train station and found a flight for about 60 or 70 euros, not too much more than the train would have cost (except add in 25 euros for checking a bag, which I only ever have to do with RyanAir because they only allow one carry-on bag). At any rate, now perhaps three-four hours later, the price of the flight had gone up by 50 euros. DAMNNITT.
My last backup option was a bus, but this wouldn’t leave until the day after next, meaning I’d have to pay for yet another day and night in Paris.
Very frustrated at this point and low on options, I’m just sitting there feeling the euros being vaccumed out of my wallet. I have to get the hell out of here.
After much debate, I finally book the damn flight for the next morning, paying the extra 50 euros than what it would have costed four hours ago. At least I’ll be out of Paris and down in Madrid and maybe with any luck I’ll find a workaway quickly.
In a brief respite from the frustrating series of events, that night I went out by myself in Montmarte, a very pretty area of Paris on a hill. As it happened to be Bastille Day there were thousands of people about. I enjoyed a nice little dinner and a walkaround as everyone gathered for the fireworks. Once again I took the “scenic route” back to my hostel after a wrong turn, gaining yet more foot traffic in Paris.
The next morning was a disaster. I’d learned that RyanAir flies out of the secondary Paris airport, a minimum 1.5 hour journey that should cost about 20 euros by train and shuttle. Despite leaving far earlier than I normally would and having a very good sense of how to get there, I think to ask a lady at the metro station how to get where I’m going.
Well, she sends me in a different direction than what I’d thought was the way, which turned out in fact to be the wrong way. After three metros I arrived at the train station just in time to miss my train to the airport, having then to wait for the next one. But by the time that train arrives in the airport town I have exactly thirty minutes before RyanAir closes check-in. The two-euro shuttle takes 45 minutes. So I have to resort to a taxi, which instead of two euros will cost 20. Only it’s Sunday morning so there are no taxis in front of the station. My phone is out of credits and I can’t speak French. It’s bad.
Very distressed, I start walking aimlessly, desperately hoping to find a taxi. Each minute ticks by and I know I’m going to miss this flight that I just dropped a ton of cash on. I’m near panic, sweating, and very upset. I see a taxi. I frantically wave him down, only to have him fly past, but looking at me and pointing back to the station. I give chase; he finally stops at the station where three patrons casually get out of the car. “Get the hell out of the car!!!” I’m thinking. “Don’t you realize I’m in a huge freakin hurry?!?”
Full panic mode. Airport please, right now. Like now now. Fortunately the driver makes good time and we pull up with one minute before check-in closes. I shell out my last 20 euros and make an olympic spring to the RyanAir desk, just in time for the agent to tell me the flight is closed. And he’s gunned down at the plate.
It’s hard to really describe the feeling I had at that instant, but it must have been apparent on my face because a moment later the guy says ok you can go but hurry up.
I finally get through security and make it on this damn aircraft, very crabby, but relieved at last. It was a rough 24 hours.