It’s been a long time, I know, and I warned you I might fall off the face of the Earth for a while, but I also said I’d be back eventually, and here I am! In Brussels, Belgium, to be exact – on to new adventures, and new languages – a la francais!
I arrived in Belgium on Friday – every time I go somewhere new, I always think of a million things I want to write about on the looooong journey over, but in the end the whole travel/arrival/adaptation process is so overwhelming that I forget everything I wanted to say and my thousands of minute observations become grouped into one unenthusiastic “Fine” when asked how things are going.
So, in an effort to combat that, I am going to attempt to recreate the past few days and everything I have seen and felt during my newest adventure.
On Friday, the plane left late. They never said it would leave late, they just kind of let us all sit there wondering and waiting, until before we knew it, an hour had passed and they were just getting ready to board. people complain all the time about flight delays, but personally I feel reassured when I know that airlines won’t let pilots fly in less-than-ideal conditions. I would rather get there late than not at all, and many times, I fear that might be a possibility. Everyone knows I hate flying, even though I do it pretty often, and that if I could drive to Europe, I definitely would. Luckily, this time I was armed with Dramamine, anti-motion-sickness pressure point bracelets, AND ginger, because we flew right through the biggest snowstorm of the winter, and the turbulence was less than gentle. But we made it and I eventually made it to Dublin. I had a five-hour layover, which would drive many people crazy with boredom. Luckily, I am a master at entertaining myself. All I need is my iPod, a sudoku book, and a tabloid magazine, and I’m good to go for hours.
Many hours later I arrived in Brussels, where I was instructed on how to get from the airport to my flat. I found the train alright (though I realized later I went to the completely wrong station). I got off at the instructed stop, and headed down a long hallway where I was met by a literal tidal wave of people, all charging in my direction and looking thoroughly miffed indeed. I fought my way through the crowds with my luggage and followed the stairs up to the Line 2 Metro….which led me outside to a street corner. I spent the next HALF HOUR going in and out of the various metro stops on the same corner, thinking I’d found Line 2, somehow ending up back in the same foyer, and taking the same flight of steps up to the street level to see if I’d missed something obvious. It wasn’t until I asked the ticket taker (“How do I get to line 2?” “Any line, 2 stops.” “Which line?” “Any line.” “Which direction?” “Any direction.” ???) that I finally made it out of the labyrinth and into a new, but slightly-less-confusing labyrinth where I eventually found my way to the correct stop and came out right in front of my building.
The flat is just as I imagined it, or rather, just as it was shown in the pictures online, and I love it. I can only stay a month, because the landlord (a Spaniard, by coincidence) is coming back, but I will thoroughly enjoy its Ikea furnishings and entire wall of windows until then. I’ll take/post pictures soon.
After several major debacles involving my finances and payment, and the dollar-euro conversion, I was finally all settled and on my way, and I could sit in my flat in peace and quiet and think. And then the loneliness and panic set in.
It doesn’t really matter how many times I go somewhere new, how long I spend wishing to go there, how much I am looking forward to the trip, or how confident I am in my ability to just pick up and go somewhere new where I don’t understand the language, don’t know anybody, and have no idea where I am – I still have the “Oh God, what the HELL am I doing here?!” feeling when I’m finally faced with the reality of being somewhere completely unfamiliar, all by myself. Every time. But I decided that sitting in my flat alone wasn’t going to help anything, so I decided to go drown my sorrows in some onion soup at this sandwich place next door. I actually almost passed it up, but something made me turn around and go in and sit down at the counter. I was halfway through my soup and near tears when this guy and girl walked in. There was lots of room in the place but for some reason they sat down right next to me. Then their friend joined them, and I was completely surrounded. It took a minute for them to say something to me, and of course, when they did, I didn’t understand it, but they switched easily to English and I explained that it was my first night in Brussels and I didn’t know any French. An hour later, I had three new phone numbers, an invitation to go out, and kisses on the cheek. This is why I always say (and it was good to be reminded) that even when you travel by yourself, you’re never really alone. I was able to return to the flat that night feeling much better about Brussels and looking forward to seeing Olivier, Alice, and Sam again.
On Saturday I woke up much earlier than I would have liked (thank you, jetlag), and decided just to wander around town for the day. I saw the Grand Place, the antiques shops, the little chocolatiers, the bars with shelves and shelves of Belgian beers. There were cobblestone streets and alleys crowded with restaurants and art nouveau decorations and even a musical instrument museum. There was also the Manneken Pis, Brussels’ most famous statue of a boy, yes, taking a leak, and of course I had to try the famous gaufre chaud – hot waffles, with chocolate, of course! I was feeling too lazy to take pictures and wanted to just enjoy the sights instead of trying to capture them, so I still haven’t got any photos of all this stuff. After a few hours of walking, my legs were killing me, and the effects of the previous day’s luggage-hauling were beginning to make my arms ache, so I went back to the flat, where I promptly fell asleep at 3pm.
When I awoke it was Saturday night, and I had hoped to have my first Belgian beer, so I read a little bit about where to go in town and decided that Place St. Gery was obviously the place to be. I got all dolled up and headed down there, where I stood on a street corner looking lost, until this guy came up to me and started speaking in fast French. Even after we confirmed that I knew about as much French as he did English, he insisted on taking me to a bar (Mappa Mundo – one I’d read a lot about and was hoping to see), where we had a few Belgian beers and tried (mostly in vain) to have a decent conversation. I was excited to be conversing with a real live French speaker (actually a Frenchman, not a Belgian, by the way), and I think he was excited to be conversing with a girl. It was nice and I was out until pretty late, taking in the atmosphere of the lively St. Gery quarter and kicking myself for having left my dictionary at home.
On Sunday, I woke up later than I would have liked (thank you, jetlag), and headed down to the much-touted flea market at Place Jeu de Balle. Apparently this is THE place to be on Sunday morning, though by the time I got there it was afternoon and the merchants were beginning to close up shop. I guess if you like antiques, this would be a great place, but to me it looked like a ton of random stuff and a high proportion of pure junk. Maybe I missed all the good stuff. Still, it was interesting just to walk around and take in the extraodinary variety of things people will pay too much money for, and there were lots ochf people down there for a Sunday stroll, so everything seemed laid-back and relaxed, as a Sunday morning (afternoon) should be. My legs were still killing me (I’ve gone months without doing hardly any physical activity at all), so I decided to spend the rest of the day lounging and sleeping, so my jetlag would wear off by the time my 9am class rolled around on Monday.
Today was the first day of class. The school is very nice (like a kid, I went to check out the location the day before to make sure I wouldn’t get lost). The students in my class vary in age and come from pretty much every continent of the world – Australia, the U.S., Italy, Cuba, Germany, Japan, Turkey, Slovenia, South Africa, and Iran. This is one of the things I love most about classes like these – the sheer diversity…it’s like having the world at your fingertips! I’m hoping to get to know them better throughout the month-long class.
Well, I guess that’s covers just about EVERY MINUTE DETAIL of my life for the past three days. If you’ve read this far, I commend you. Pictures will be coming shortly but there are a few pictures of the holidays and wintertime in Chicago on Shutterfly for your viewing pleasure.
There are several times I’ve wanted to post entries here about life in the U.S. over the past few months, but somehow, I could never explain just exactly what it’s like. Every time I’m home, I feel more like a tourist, and the differences between the U.S. and Europe become ever more glaringly apparent. I can’t say I don’t love Chicago, or the Midwest, or my American friends and family, or double-decker hamburgers with all the (American) fixings. I love all those things, and I miss them when I’m far away, and the older I get, the more I realize how much of myself is made up of my Chicago/Midwest upbringing, and how proud of that fact I actually am. But let’s face it – the U.S. of A is a damn crazy place. More on that later, but for now, au revoir!