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A Last Hurrah

sunny

It’s time to go back! Back to the future! Yeah, so little secret: I’m not actually writing this right after traveling. Full disclosure, I’m actually writing this two weeks after taking my trip. Between various shows on Netflix and working out (and school too, I suppose) I kind of put this on the backburner. However, I’m making up for the delay by getting this done now once and for all.

It’s actually the weekend before finals here. I have my Stats final on Monday and my Thermo final on Tuesday morning, which is when I’m supposed to be heading out. It’ll be tight fitting in that test Tuesday morning, but hopefully it’ll all work out (and if it doesn’t, I shall be royally screwed). If all goes according to plan, by 8:30pm on Tuesday, I will be standing firmly on American soil once again. The past two weeks I’ve been swamped with a test every week and numerous homework assignments. By now, I’m in the mode where it’s normal to have a test every week, which is quite scary to deal with it. However, I think I’ve been able to slay these tests better than Buffy with a vampire. In fact, I scored high enough on my last MSE test that I was able to skip out on the final! On the last day of class, our teacher gave us our scores and said: “Any of you who have an A, you can go.” Who’d a thunk! The class I thought would be my downfall turned out to be the one I could skip out on in the end. Now, only two more stand in my way…

School aside, let’s hop in the time-travelling phone booth with Bill and Ted to revisit my most excellent adventure to Belgium. I took this trip with several new people I’d met in the program. There were five of us overall: a perfect size for a travel group. I would argue that four is the lower limit for a good group and seven the upper. Our late-evening MSE class was cancelled, so we left at noon on Friday with the intention of coming back Monday afternoon (no I wasn’t skipping, there were no classes Monday). Our Airbnb was located in Brussels, which would be our forward operating base for the weekend. Brussels is centrally located in Belgium, so it would be a short ride to the various cities we planned on seeing. All in all, it was gearing up to be a fun trip.

I had to take my Thermo quiz immediately before we headed out, which left my insides churning in a mix of adrenaline and pure fear as we saddled up with our bags and got on the bus to the train station. I got acquainted with the rest of my travel companions on the bus ride there: some new and some already familiar to me. Our train left at 1pm and would take us about four hours to get to Brussels. During this time, I continued reading a book I’d picked up about the survivors of Hiroshima, as well as finishing up the last few episodes of “Stranger Things”. With it being the middle of the day, I wasn’t scared to watch it. In the midst of our ride, we happened upon another girl from GTL, who was making her way to Amsterdam. She was very friendly and helped us pass the time by finding someone new to talk to. Before we knew it, our train was pulling into the main station and we were parting ways.

We had been told that our Airbnb was a fifteen-minute walk from the train station, which doesn’t sound that bad on paper. However, this was a fifteen-minute walk *uphill*. (Yes, I did have to walk uphill both ways in the snow and the rain). This hill wasn’t that small either: it was the largest hill in Brussels! We so happened to be inhabiting its highest peak. Weighed down with our bags and weary from the travel thus far, the satisfaction was so sweet when we piled into our temporary abode and tossed our bags in a heap on the ground. Before she headed out, our host was excited to offer any assistance we might need in finding suitable dinner places or places that served beverages of a certain alcoholic persuasion. We turned down her suggestions on the bars, but did eventually make our way to the city center. She said it would contain the most options for us.

Without our bags, the walk felt much lighter and enjoyable. The big Brazil versus Belgium football match was tonight. Having never won the World Cup, Belgium was the underdog that no one had expected to come this far. If they won tonight, they would be moving on to the semi-finals. Our apartment was situated in a heavily Brazilian neighborhood, as evidenced by the multiplicity of flags hanging from every conceivable nook and cranny. In the hours leading up to the game, everyone was out doing their own version of tail-gating: some had coolers, others chairs set up outside of bars with televisions, and almost everyone with a beer in hand. We passed by several groups of kids playing pickup games out on the sidewalk. Between 6 and 8pm, the entire city would be watching in nervous anticipation for their respective teams.

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When we got to the city center, the entire scene was one hot mess of people. There were people walking around in medieval costumes, while others sported soccer jerseys. We heard music and found a town square with bleachers set up around the perimeter. In the center were various groups performing traditional Belgian dances. I desperately wanted to run out there and show off my moves, but I was talked out of it by my friends. After investigating the square, we went window-shopping in the neighborhood for a suitable dinner place. We eventually settled on what Belgium is most known for: its Italian pizza. Although we had wanted to find something more traditional, this place fit all our criteria (it was cheap) and was right next to us.

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Following dinner, we took a more circuitous route to get back to our Airbnb. We headed up the other big hill that Brussels is built on and got a great view of the sunset. Then we passed through a park smothered in a purple haze, which would have made Jimi Hendrix happy. I was able to get my first Belgian waffle! It was a tasty fried treat that held up its reputation. Continuing with our meandering, we found a statue of a little cherub peeing. I’m not sure why it’s such a famous fountain, but there were numerous chocolate shops around us that sold recreations of this effigy in an edible form.

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Brussels is a traditional European city, with everything one would expect to find. It didn’t have many major attractions like, say, Paris, but it did have spirit. We witnessed a bit of this spirit towards the end of the soccer match. With ten minutes left, every television screen in the city had mobs of people standing around it. The closest we could get to one was within thirty feet. However, we all knew the outcome of the match when a loud roar ripped through the city and the blowhorns started. Cars around us let loose with their horns and the Belgian flag was waved out of windows. You think people take American football seriously, these wackos take it to a whole new level here in Europe. By now it was 8:30pm and it would take us about forty-five minutes to get back to our apartment. We worked our way through the masses and saw some pretty ludicrous things. Drivers on mopeds were standing on their seats as they rode, large groups of people were dancing in the dark in the middle of the street, and several everyday minivans were converted into party buses, with way more than the legal amount of people hanging out of them and blasting tunes. Understandably, this was a big deal for Belgium.

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When we got close to our place, we passed through the Brazilian neighborhoods once more. In stark contrast to the partying Belgians, the air was saturated with sadness. The place looked worse than a teenager after a breakup. You could sense that the people were not expecting to end up on the losing side. It was around 10pm when we finally stepped into our room and collapsed on the couch. We worked out the game plan for the next day and promptly went to bed after our exciting first day. Even though we had only been in the city since 4pm, it felt like we had done a whole day’s worth of things. By the end of it, we had walked over nine miles!

Exhausted from yesterday, I staggered out of bed as quietly as I could at 6am. Although the others wouldn’t be up for another two hours, I find it hard to lie in bed after 6:30am. Instead, I went into the living room and continued to read my book. When they did start to stir, I began to get my supplies ready for the day. Heading out at 8:30am, the day’s itinerary was to see the two cities of Ghent and Bruges. Only a half hour by train, it was a quick ride over to our first stop for the day: Ghent.

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Ghent is a famous port city of Belgium: acting as an intermediary for traders between countries like France and the Netherlands. Due its strategic significance, thankfully it missed out on the destruction that the Nazis wrought on other cities across Belgium. That morning, I had found a free walking tour service for Ghent, so we decided that it would be the best way to get acquainted with the city. Our tour guide was a woman in her early forties, with a perky personality and a strong passion for the people of Ghent. She continually talked about their adaptability and innovative approaches to making things work. For example, she led us into a Marriott hotel that had an unassuming exterior. With the original brick façade of a building from the 1500’s, we had to squeeze through the entrance to make it inside. However, upon walking in, the space expanded like entering into Diagon Alley. There was a beautiful glass ceiling that made the place look like an atrium. It was truly a marvel in architecture to have such a large interior hidden behind the tiny front door. She said that it had to keep the original exterior, because it was part of the main street of Ghent and therefore had to maintain its historical look. Back in its day, the original building was also a hotel for salty sailors looking to find a bed and a woman for the night. Its patrons are a tad more refined nowadays, but its cool that it retains its original function even after all these years.

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Aside from magically expanding hotels, she showed us a square where three lampposts sit. Every time a baby is born at a hospital in Ghent, the doctors give the mother a button to press that lights up the lamps. Our guide said that the people of Ghent wanted to celebrate new life entering the world after facing several centuries of repression and death as a city. Then, she led us down a graffiti-covered alley that is a “sanctioned graffiti zone” for anyone that wants to let out their inner delinquent. Every week, new paintings spring up over old ones. The Office of Tourism in the city even sells cans of spray paint to interested vandals! Following that, she showed us a famous beer hall with one of the largest selections in Ghent. Apparently, when people started stealing too many glasses from the hall, it became a new rule at the place that you would have to give the waiter your shoe if you wanted to order a beer. The shoe would be put on a pulley-like device and hung from the ceiling until your meal was over. That way, you wouldn’t be able to leave without giving back your glass. It was highly reminiscent of tactics my teachers used in elementary school.

Towards the end of our tour, she began to tell us about the turning point in Ghent’s history: how it transitioned to being one of the most powerful cities in Europe to being tossed aside. It was the Hundred Years’ War between France and England that started the eventual decline. As Ghent was based off of trading and still a province of France at the time, having its two major customers go to war ended up badly for the city. Then, technological advancements in the textile industry saw the city start to fall behind the technology curve. Unable to catch up to or trade with England, the city’s inhabitants started looking elsewhere for work. In the 1500’s, a new hope was born in Ghent (no, not Luke Skywalker): it was Charles V. He would go on to rule the Holy Roman Empire and unite large swathes of Europe. However, instead of elevating the city from its position of poverty, he levied huge taxes against the townspeople and, when they refused to pay, showed up with a full army and forced them to hand everything over (and then some). The people of Ghent came to hate Charles V, who many thought would be the prodigy that would save the city. Since then, Ghent hasn’t been able to bounce back from its slump and possess the power it once had. Despite this, it’s certainly worth a visit and has a series of canals that highlight its history with commerce. We ended the tour around 1pm and made our way back to the train station, where we would continue our adventure on to Bruges.

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Getting on the train, we were all starting to feel the pangs of hunger as we rode to Bruges. It was only a half hour ride, but our growling stomachs made it worse. During the ride, I looked up places on my favorite go-to site for restaurants: TripAdvisor. Although the place I found was a half hour walk from the station, there were enough great reviews that it would balance out the extra traveling time. When we got off the train, we were blinded by the hot sun that dominated a cloudless sky. There was little shade to be found in the narrow, stone streets as we walked, and the mixture of heat and hunger made us all pick up the pace. We passed through the center of the town and down to where a large statue of a humpback whale sprang out of a canal. Made out of recycled pieces, it was a sculpture advocating for the cleanup of the oceans. Next to the statue was our final destination, which, unfortunately for us, was closed today. Between Venice and Bruges, I don’t have the best record when it comes to finding restaurants that are open.

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Despite this setback, we backtracked to the city center and found a place that sold more traditional Belgian food: hamburgers! Okay, so maybe we got lazy and found a place that had cheap prices again, but I can assure you that it was still delicious. We lounged around in the air-conditioned haven for an hour or so, enjoying the temporary respite. Afterwards, we made our way back to the whale statue and followed the canals. In a way, it felt like the city was trying to copy Venice with how the boats ferried eager tourists around. However, having visited the real thing just two weeks ago, this couldn’t hold a candle to Venice. Heading back into the city center, we walked through an old bell-tower and watched some candy being made in a shop window. Then, following the canals once more, we made our way over to a Convent, where nuns had been living and working for centuries. We stood on the bridge to the Convent and watched ducks come and go in the water as we passed the time talking. Although I looked for her, I didn’t see The Penguin (or Jake and Ellwood for that matter). Finding a park to walk through, we moseyed around for a while as we began to make an indirect path back to the train station. As it was only 5pm, we were trying to figure out what we could do next. We figured that it was too early to go back to Brussels and Bruges was kinda, “been there, done that.” I made a joke that we should hop on the first train leaving and see where it goes, which made one person pipe up that we were only a fifteen-minute ride away from the beach. This proposition piqued all of our interests, and the vote was unanimously in favor of going. That’s how we ended up visiting the beach resort of Belgium, Ostende, on a mere whim.

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One thing I’ve loved about this summer is having the freedom to travel wherever I wish. We wanted to go to the beach, so we went to the beach! The train network makes it very convenient to get around without a car, although you do have to put up with the various strikes and missing trains by mere seconds. When we got off at Ostende, we followed the salty breeze and sound of lapping waves to the water’s edge. Even here, in the middle of Belgium, Disney made an appearance. There was a walled off area of the beach with special Disney sculptures that you could pay to see. Although I didn’t care to go, two people in our group (die-hard Disney fans) went inside. The rest of us walked to the edge of a large pier and found some rocks to sit on while we relaxed. There we sat, soaking up the sun and enjoying a break from walking. I whipped out my phone and started surfing through TripAdvisor for the second time that day in the hopes of redemption. Just as I found a suitable place, the other members of our party walked up to us. We all agreed that we were ready for dinner, so we made our way towards a place that had had good reviews for its chicken.

Apparently, the reviews raved about chicken so much because that was the only thing they served! The two options on the menu were half-chicken, or half-chicken with salad. Our waitress gave us a confused look when we asked for a menu, as if we didn’t already know that there was really only one thing to order. The fresh chicken that came out was complemented by a basket of slices of white bread that was put on our table. If I were to look for Jake and Ellwood, this would’ve been the place to find them. Even with the limited menu, my compatriots were pretty happy with the dinner. I had redeemed myself!

When dinner was over, it was starting to near 8:15pm. With an hour’s ride back to Brussels, we decided that it might be a good idea to catch the 8:40 train. We got on board with two minutes to spare and crammed into some seats alongside other families and groups that had come to the beach on this beautiful day. Little kids ran up and down the aisles as beleaguered parents chased after them. An hour later, we were beginning the mile hike up to our resting place. When we finally arrived, our legs were sore from a full day’s adventure. All in all, we had gone over 14 miles!

What I find incredible is that we were able to see three different cities in one day: the power of being able to hop on any train and travel wherever we fancied. We got a good taste of each city (and some chicken) and were able to move on whenever we wanted to. I’ve cherished having this freedom, because I know that in one short week all my freedoms will be sucked away and replaced with a very strict set of guidelines. The thought of Field Training looms over me with every approaching day, but I have to focus on finals and getting home first before I can even begin to get scared about it. I’ll finish up Part 2 another time, but for now, I have Stats to get back to.

‘Til next time, до свидания!

Posted by oklempay 07:38 Archived in Belgium Tagged canals ghent beach waffle disney brussels bruges ostende cherub stranger_things Comments (0)

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