Belgian Troubles

I am soaked. I am cranky, hungry, tired, and soaked. The worst thing about traveling alone is when you make a wrong turn it is entirely your own fault. Not that I could have really asked anyone for directions. This is the first place I’ve been to where English isn’t the first language let alone any language to them.

Belgium is an interesting place linguistically. They speak either French, Dutch or a combination of the two. This is the first place I’ve been where they don’t have their own language but adapted the language of the surrounding countries–France and Netherlands.

But here I was wandering the streets of country in the pouring rain at 6:30 am. During the bus ride I was able to preserve enough battery life to look up directions and save them. It should only take me 20 minutes to walk there. Just a little over a mile, which seems to be the magic number for distance from the trains for me.

Since I wasn’t able to get much sleep my body felt more like a shell of a human than a fully functional adventurer. Not only am I naturally a broken compass, I didn’t even have the brainpower to figure which way I needed to go.

It took about 10 minutes of aimless walking before I found a hotel to ask directions. By this point I am slightly soaked, my hair is a greasy mess, and I have the backpack the size of a small human on my back. I’m sure I’m exactly what this hotel is looking to avoid. Not only was this one of the prettiest hotels I’ve ever been in. From ceiling to floor was covered in marble, from the tiles to counters to each pillar. The room was filled with the most beautiful modern furniture but had a surprisingly unfriendly teller. I couldn’t understand what he could possible be upset about. He is doing well of here, I mean the place can certainly afford to pay him. Then I realized what I looked like and it all made sense.

I apologized and asked where I could find my hostel and he gave me this strange and confused look. I was able to show him the address from my phone where he then typed away on his computer for what felt like a lifetime. He then told me that I can take the train station two stops and I will be within walking distance from my hostel.

Wonderful! I normally would ask for walking directions but if this rain kept up it would certainly turn into a triathlon instead, so I thanked him ask where I might find this Bruxelles Central? He gave me a look as if I just asked the stupidest question of my life and without even taking his eye off the computer waved his hand toward the door. Too tired to put up a fight I just left the way I came. Right across the street was the train station that I needed to find. No wonder why I seemed like a fool!

I normally do whatever it takes to avoid taking public transit. Not because I want this to be some authentic trek where I walked across Europe whenever possible. No, I avoid it because it is one of the worst experiences. Imagine what it’s like to use the subway or busses in a different city. Now multiply that by about 100 because everything in a different language and no one can help you.

After entering the train station I wait for the lady at the ticket counter to be free. As I am standing there motionless I spot one of my bus buddies, and by bus buddy I really mean my Paul Bunyan looking fellow. Somehow he managed to find his way here the same time as me and I was the one who was lost. Either way I finally had the opportunity to snap a quick photo of him.

I somehow communicated to the teller that I needed to get off at Zone Bruxelles. The train was leaving in about 7 minutes so I had to quickly find my way through the labyrinth of a train station. Once I got there I sat down to relax and stared at the map hoping to recognize something. Nope not a single thing looked like anything I’ve seen before. The only thing that I was able to pick out of this map was that it was in French. This is was a good thing to see! I say this because not only is French a latin based language it is very similar to both English and Spanish. I can sort of make sense of the words which is not something I can say for the strange Dutch.

By the time I finished looking at the map I realized that the train doors were about to close. I grab my things as quick as possible and hopped aboard. Within 10 minutes I was at Zone Bruxelles. The train came to a complete stop and I was by the door anxiously waiting for it to open. I knew I was on the right side because the out the window of the other side was a wall and I saw people walking from the train on my side towards the stairs. Finally after a loud huffing and puffing this elder lady presses this green button and the door opens. Apparently in Europe you have to open up your own train door? Never in my life had I seen anything like that before.

Between waiting on line and taking the train ride my clothing had just started to dry up. I was feeling a little better knowing I’d be at my hostel within a few minutes. I left the train station and looked at my phone to get a better idea of where I was standing. It was at that moment I realized that my phone was on 1% battery. I quickly rummaged through my bag to find something to write with and anything to write on. I had to get the address down before it died.

Luckily I had a few minutes to spare once I wrote it down. I knew this was going to be an a long, long morning. I attempted to find another hotel to ask for directions but they proved to be of no help. Their computers were down and the clerk had no idea what or where these crossroads were. He told me the hotel had public computer I could see across the lobby and I knew this would be my last chance. I typed into the computer the address and started at the map for as long as I could. I had to pick out anything I could recognize easily to know I was headed in the right direction.

The rain lightened up to a drizzle as I was heading north toward the hostel. At some point I decided to stop by this bar to see if I was still headed in the right direction. It struck me as a little odd that there was well, one, a bar open at half past seven and two that there were people in it drinking already. It didn’t even seem like that they just pulled a bender and stayed up all night. It felt as if they just woke up and decided who needs coffee and rum and coke will be just as good.

Again this damn language barrier worked against me. Not only did they seem like they were angry I was disturbing them, they also gave me the look of what are you even doing in these parts? That was when I realized I was 100% in the bad part of town. I was too tired and groggy to realize the boarded up windows and graffiti tags that sprinkled nearly every building and sidewalk. They also had no idea what I was talking about. I decided to just keep walking, what else could I possibly do at this point.

I finally came across a church where I knew I’d at least find someone kind enough to help me. I opened up the big medieval style wooden door to find not a single soul in the place. There was people in the bar at 7 am but not a single person in the church? What did I get myself into. As I turned around to leave was able to see one person in the courtyard and I rushed over to ask her directions. Finally someone who spoke English! But that was as good as it got. She told me I had walked over to the wrong side of the city and I had to backtrack.

By this point the rain had started up again and I just didn’t even care. I was soaked lost and on little to no hours of sleep. It was at that moment I realized what was I even upset about? It’s only rain? How silly is it for me to be angry at rain. Rain has been around longer than people could even conceptualize what the hell was falling from the sky. So what if I got wet? I mean it’s not like I have somewhere or someone I have to impress right now.

After that epiphany two things happened. One, I started to realize that it was pretty refreshing, and two it started raining cats and dogs. So either the universe heard and agreed with me or thought I was so crazy for thinking it that, it decided to show me how bad it can be.

While I was at the last hotel I managed to get a map of the surrounding area. This was a life saver for me as I was finally able to figure out where I was and where I needed to go. Expect this map was made out of paper. Rain and paper just aren’t the best of friends. Every time I took out the map it had to be done as quick as possible. Just open it up, look for the next street to turn on and put it away. By the end of this adventure the entire map looked like a watercolor painting made by a five year old.

Finding the hostel was one of the best things that had happened to me. I was soaked, cold, and beyond exhausted. All I wanted to do was take a hot shower and sleep. It turns out the place I booked was actually a hotel with few multi-person dorms. This meant I would have a nice shower, nice bed, and live like royalty for a night. I find the front desk and begin to give her my information to check in. Although I knew I wouldn’t be able to check in yet, it was about 8 am and check in wasn’t till 10 am I figured I’d at least let them know I am here. I wasn’t quite listening to what she was saying because by this point I knew the routine. But something caught me off guard and by off guard I meant the face she was staring at me waiting for me to respond. I apologize and ask her to repeat what she said. “I’m sorry check in isn’t until 3pm.” again I asked her to repeat herself not because I didn’t hear her but because I didn’t actually believe what she said.

I could have sworn the website said 10 am check in. There was no way I was about to sit in this lobby soaking wet for the next 7 hours waiting for my room to be ready. There was just no possible way after getting lost in the rain for an hour and a half that I was going to have to sleep in a chair and dry up from the air conditioning of this building. Well that exactly what I had to do. The next several hours were one of the worst experiences of the trip. I tried so hard to fall asleep with my head on one of the lunch tables and I just could not fall asleep. Every time I did drift off it would feel like an eternity worth of sleep but I’d wake up and my clock would say only 20 minutes had passed.

This little routine was my life until 3 pm where I was finally able to check in. I dragged my body up to the fourth floor where my room was and I just laid down on my little piece of heaven. Somehow all my power naps actually gave me enough energy that I didn’t need to sleep anymore. The first thing I did do though was jump into the shower. I just wanted something hot and steamy not freezing and windy like I had just endured.

By the time I finished my shower one of my roommates had come back. Short sweet girl from somewhere in the midwest. She had been studying in Czech Republic for the semester and was traveling a bit before heading home the next day. She had been in Belgium for a couple of days and she was leaving to get some food when I asked if I could tag along since we were heading in the same direction anyway.

I took my camera and was ready to take some pictures but I ended up seeing nothing picture worthy. As strange as that sounds this place was very bland. Maybe it was the clouds and the weather or maybe it was the fact that this city was listed as one of the top five ugliest cities in Europe. Either way I put my camera away and was just focused on finding some affordable food.

Eventually my roommate and I parted ways and wandered around I found something to eat. I couldn’t even figure out what was on any of the menus I was looking at and I did not have the guts to point randomly at something. With my luck it be roasted pig groin and I just wasn’t willing to take that chance.

Finally I found a place that had pictures of all of its food! This was perfect! Except for the fact it had nothing to do with Belgium. It was a friend chicken and halal restaurant. I felt pretty silly having my first meal be Turkish in Belgium but it was cheap and I didn’t care. I was even more confused when the owner spoke Spanish to a few other customers. I just didn’t understand anything about this place.

After ordering food I sat waiting at a nearby table people watching everyone inside and anyone who walked by the window. This is one of my favorite things to do, especially when I am surrounded by langues that I can’t understand. I always try to guess where that person is in their life and why. What they do and why are they here. I’ve done this since I was a kid, I guess this is why I became such a people person. My whole life has been me trying to figure people out.

A few minutes later of zoning out my food hit the table. My eye’s were definitely bigger than my stomach that’s for sure. I still wasn’t even entirely

sure what I ordered but I knew that there was at least a burger, a shishkabob with meat and peppers, lamb chop and some delicious looking squiggles of meat, which I’m assuming was also lamb–either way it was delicious.

I paid my check and decided to wander around until I came across something of interest. As I turned the corner smells of waffles and sweets conquered my senses. I not only smelt it but I could taste how delicious the Belgian waffles would be. I didn’t have an authentic Belgian dinner but I was certainly going to have their waffles.

I walked around the varies pastry shops looking for the place that stood out to me the most. I eventually found one and it looked too good to pass up. Not only did it only cost a few euros right across from the shop was two street musicians–a man with his son. How could I turn down two of my favorite things in one? Live music and food!

Within the last few hours I ate enough to put me into a food coma and I decided to head back to the hostel. I had my camera out for no longer than 5 minutes before it started raining again and I decided to call Belgium quits. I just wasn’t going to be able to do anything here. I figured after as much traveling as I have done lately Belgium will just be my resting point. Besides, I had to catch my first Blablacar in the morning to Amsterdam.

After waking up and struggling to find a place open for anything breakfast related I decided to just get a pastry and cup of tea. I didn’t have enough time to really sit down and enjoy it so I ate them on the go. I had to find Brussels Park and meet the driver in front of the fountain. Blablacar is this ride share service where someone who is already driving towards a destination posts that he or she is leaving at this time and has how many seats available. I managed to find one very easily leaving Brussels and heading to Amsterdam for about £10 which is about $15. It would save me time and money and seemed like the best option. Although I was a little wary about getting in a car with strangers I heard a lot of good things about it.

As I was struggling to find my way to this park a sequence of unfortunate events revealed themselves–as if I didn’t have enough issues in Belgium. I had my large bag on my back, my smaller day back on the front of me. I sort of felt like a pack mule at this point and didn’t want to seem too much like a tourist by carrying my camera around my neck. I decided it be a good idea to just leave the top of my daypack unzipped so I could easily grab my camera if I saw something interesting. Of course me not using my head at all that as I walk the bag will bounce up and down slowly unzipping itself. My camera falls out with the lens extended landing face down breaking it.

Wonderful. Not even a two weeks into my trip and now I have no lens to use for my camera. I just couldn’t believe my foolishness. Here I am looking like I have my shit together to everyone back home but I can’t even take care of my camera, one of the most important things I brought with me.

I was angry with myself and stressed because I didn’t even have enough time to fathom what to do about it because I had to find my way to this car. I spent the next 10 minutes walking there trying to fix the lens that now won’t extend or close. I finally made it to Brussels park but had no clue how I was going to contact him. I was there 20 minutes early and I knew he said to find him on the north side. I didn’t really know what he looks like but I knew his car was red. So I tried desperately to find a red car parked along the north side of the park. Nothing. Now it was about 10 minutes till he was supposed to leave and I didn’t know what to do. No wifi and no service there was no way to contact him.

I decided my best option was to find a place that had wifi. I ran up and down streets trying to find a cafe that would have free wifi. No luck. It was about 3 minutes before he was going to leave when I found a connection. I was able to contact him and tell him that I was a few blocks away and asked him if he had left yet.–luckily he had not. I told him I’d be there in a few minutes and ran back as quick as I can.

There he was inside the park waiting for me. All I had to do was walk into the park and I would have found him. How silly of me? Sometimes I take things a little too literal, and this was a perfect example.

The car ride there was pretty cool. The driver was English but lived in France, his passenger was his boyfriend and then in the back seat with me was a middle-aged woman who actually is from the Netherlands. It was cool to be able to, well talk to people in English. Something I had not really been able to do while staying in Belgium.

We spent the next few hours just talking about what it’s like to stay in each of our own countries, what we studied and just the little difference between each place. It’s so interesting to me to see how different countries laws and rules differ. We talked about the points system for getting a driver license suspended. For example in England you lose points and when you hit zero your license will be suspended. But in France you gain points, sort of like the states. Once you hit a certain number your license is suspended. This seems like such a small detail but the devils in the detail. Since his license is English, if he were to get pulled over for speeding and ticketed in France there is no way for them to be able to add points to his license since the system doesn’t work that way. That doesn’t mean he can’t get it suspended, but the only way he would be able to is from a judge. All he has to do is pay the fine and there is not much more to be done. It’s crazy how some small detail like that can change everything.

As interesting as the conversation was I just was ready to sleep. I had a long day and it wasn’t even midday yet. I put my head on the glass and watched the average life of average people pass me by. Here I am on an adventure within an adventure and they are just going to work. I find that to be so strange. We are all simultaneously living our lives together not knowing what who or why we are heading the direction we are, yet we are heading in the same direction.

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