Blunders in Belgium

In the morning, I took an Uber to St. Pancras International train station to catch my Eurostar to Brussels. I figured I’d just hop on the train and settle in for the 2 hour ride, and I arrived at the station early and hungry, so I went to a cafe inside the station for some breakfast. I ordered pain au chocolat and some hot tea and sat down on a bench with my stuff.

I shipped two packages home from London, full of books and pamphlets I’d acquired over my 9 days in England. I didn’t want to not buy books in London but I had to travel light for the majority of my trip. My backpack was slimmer and I was still sticking to my budget, and I felt positive about the first solo part of my adventure.

My tea was scalding, so I tried to let it cool for a while. I watched as hundreds of people lined up in front of me to go through security. I was confused and decided to go up and see if it was time for me to get in line or not. Turns out I was almost late. Unbeknownst to me, Eurostar trains have airport-like security checks and strict boarding times. My mobile ticket even had some fine print saying I wouldn’t be able to get through the turnstiles less than an hour before boarding time.

I panicked but thankfully was able to get through the gate with the barcode on my phone. As I snaked through the line with the other people who were waiting to board, I saw signs for my train time and destination. I raised my hand and told the staff I was supposed to be on that train, and the let me cut in line a bit. I had to get my backpack x-rayed and then I had to go through customs.

I ran onto my train with minutes to spare. I had a burnt tongue and was out of breath, but at least I made it. I wrote in my journal most of the ride to Brussels, and I used the train’s wi-fi to download my Belgium map on my phone. I had an app that let me download offline maps to use in a pinch whenever I didn’t have wi-fi, so that was nice.

Once in Brussels, I started walking around to try to find my way to my final stop – Bruges. It took me a good 30 minutes to realize I needed to buy a regional train ticket from a machine. I got my ticket and double checked the train destinations (because now everything was in French) and I went to an ATM to get out some Euros.

It was a short train ride to Bruges, but then I had to get to my hostel. My offline map wasn’t helping much so eventually I found the bus ticket office and got a ticket for the local bus. The bus took me to the historic center of the city, which is beautiful and looks like a storybook. There were horse-drawn carriages taking people around, colorful buildings all pushed up against one another, and a church clock tower that rose high into the sky.


I walked down quiet streets, over tiny bridges and streams, to Snuffel Hostel. The hostel was pretty modern and nice-looking, but I had no idea what to expect, as this was the first hostel I’d ever stayed at. I was kind of shy and awkward most of the time I was there because solo travel was still new to me, and I mostly saw people in groups or alone on the phones keeping to themselves.

That night, I just went to a pub for dinner for some roast chicken and fries (which originated in Belgium, by the way). I was glad the staff spoke English because I was in the Flemish-speaking part of Belgium at that point, and I could barely say anything in Flemish. I think I did learn how to say good day and thank you by the second or third day I was there, though.

I walked around the square, taking pictures, getting a lay of the land. I went to the chocolate museum, where, upon entrance, I was handed a bar of chocolate. It was fun learning about the history and process of making chocolate, and at every turn there were free samples. At the end, there was a demonstration where we watched a woman explain how they make pralines (individual little chocolates) and we were allowed to try lots of different kinds. They melted in my mouth and tasted like heaven on earth. Now anything less than Belgian chocolate just isn’t the same to me.

I was trying to get a selfie behind the church, and was approached by a guy around my age who was also trying to get someone to take his picture. He and I helped each other find the correct angle for our pictures and he asked where I was from. Turns out, he was from Machu Picchu! I’ve heard a lot about Machu Picchu but it was crazy meeting someone who was from there. We wished each other luck on our solo trips and parted ways.

I wandered around an art exhibit and found some gorgeous artwork I wished I could take home. Then I went in search of a scarf and some more chocolate. I found a pink scarf and some chocolate covered strawberries and ate them as I walked down the cobblestone paths of Bruges, as horses clopped along beside me. I couldn’t believe I was actually doing it, doing what I planned for so long.

 

I went back to the hostel and realized I had way too many pictures already with not enough phone storage. As I fretted about what to do, I overheard my roommate talking to her mom through FaceTime. She was excitedly telling her mom about her plans for London and mentioned doing Harry Potter related activities. Her mom got onto her and told her she needed to do more “cultural” things, not just see dumb Harry Potter stuff. My jaw dropped.

When my roommate got off the phone, I told her I’d just been to London and had done tons of HP-related things, and I said, “My mom would never say something like that to me – she knows I love Harry Potter too much!” I assured her I knew what it was like having parents trying to dictate what you do from so far away, and told her to definitely do as much Harry Potter-related stuff as she could. She was nice and we talked for a while before going to bed.

Unfortunately, I woke up the next morning with about 30 incredibly itchy mosquito bites. The room was hot, despite the weather outside being cloudy and drizzly and cool, so we’d opened the windows to let in a breeze but instead of that we just got blood-sucking monsters. I went to the drug store that day and got some roll-on anti-itch medicine but it didn’t help as much as I needed it to.

I went to the library and tried to see if I could use their computer to upload my photos from my phone onto my husband’s server. He’d given me a USB that connects directly with my phone so that I could free up my phone space from time to time. It didn’t work and I wasted a few hours, so I gave up and decided to enjoy my time in Belgium.

I walked around more of Bruges, looking at all the pretty buildings, the canals, the swans, and the horses, until about lunchtime. I walked to the train station, which took me a while and involved me crossing a large street very illegally because there was no crosswalk in sight. I got a train to Ghent and got off to find it was nearly empty.

I went inside the first lunch option that I could find – a pizza chain – and got some pasta. I tried to use their wi-fi to see why I was severely underwhelmed by Ghent. It seemed like an empty, industrial-type town with nothing to do. Turns out I probably should have taken the train one more stop because I was not in the center of town.

When I did find the “pretty” part of town, I was relieved. I saw more tourists and knew I was in the right place. There was a huge castle, more canals, lots of shops and churches, and a tram running through the town every now and then. I went inside some churches mostly to sit down and relax, but also to find some free wi-fi. I decided I wanted a real Belgian waffle, but all the touristy stands I’d seen up to that point had crispy waffles in paper plates with Belgian flags sticking out of them, and I was highly suspicious that they were not, in fact, real Belgian waffles.

I found the cutest little shop down a tiny alleyway called Fritz. The owners were definitely Belgian and all the customers were Belgian. I was confident I was in the right place for a good treat. I ordered (kind of) in Flemish/German and was thankful I knew German because I knew the word for strawberry. They didn’t have wi-fi but I just enjoyed seeing all the people around me, smiling and enjoying their desserts and coffee. I got a thick waffle with whipped cream and strawberries on top, along with some rich hot cocoa. Heaven again.

After filling myself up (on sugar, mostly) I went to a store to try to find an external battery because my phone, although new and usually long-lasting, was not cutting it as I tried to traverse new territory every day, searching for wi-fi, using my maps, taking videos, etc. I did find wi-fi in the store and was able to FaceTime my mom for a while. It was good to vent about the frustrations I had getting around alone with little knowledge of where I was and it was fun telling her about all the chocolate I was eating.

Then I went to the castle and when I went up to buy a ticket, the lady asked me if I was a student. In many places (museums, tourist sites, etc.) EU citizens under the age of 26 can get a large discount. Not only am I not an EU citizen or a student-ID-wielding student, but I’m 27. So I usually have to pay full price. However, the lady just guessed based on my baby face that I was under the age limit and I just told her, “Yes! Student!” and to my surprise, she didn’t ask for any ID so I paid half of what I would have. (Don’t worry, I only cheated like this a few times. Most of the time on my trip, I was very rule-abiding. Hermione would be proud.)

The castle was cool inside but the best part was the incredible view. I got to see so much of Ghent from high up, and the Belgian flags waving here and there made it so much more romantic. A few people commented on my gimbal (the thing I put my phone on to stabilize it when I took videos) and the case it comes in (it looks like a mini guitar case). This also became a theme throughout my trip. People would often remark on how cool my gimbal was when it was out and in my hands, but they’d also ask me if I had a tiny guitar when it was stored in its case on my back. Fun times.

I didn’t do much more in Ghent. I took the tram back to the station and went back to Bruges. That night, more mosquitoes bit me and my roommates were obnoxiously loud after coming back from partying early in the morning. I finally decided to just pay for iCloud storage on my phone so that I didn’t have to delete any pictures or find another roundabout way to upload my photos somewhere.

My last day in Bruges was by far the best. I knew the city better, I was more confidant reading maps and going around alone, and I was less afraid of talking to people. I met a Chinese girl in the common room of the hostel and ate breakfast with her. Then I just decided to wander around, guided by some spots on the map the hostel provided.

I found a tiny sheep pasture with sleeping sheep, and then I made my way to some famous churches. Inside the Jerusalem Chapel, I learned some Belgian history and crawled in a creepy hole to see a replica of Jesus’ tomb. I said Goeiedag (good day/hello) to everyone I saw that day and they said it back to me appreciatively.

I strolled down the sidewalks of the canals and found giant windmills. I got some guys to take my picture for me in front of one of them, too. I even stopped just to watch a drawbridge open for some ships.

Then I got some lunch and saw the Madonna of Bruges (the only sculpture by Michelangelo to leave Italy during the artist’s lifetime). It was a really great day of just walking around, enjoying the nice weather, and taking everything in. I bought some postcards and sent them to my friends, parents, and Junkyu. Then I bought some more chocolate. Because of course!

 

My next stop was The Netherlands!

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