Archive for June 2012

Booking it to Brugge (Belgium Day 2)

Couldn't resist the alliteration, sorry :P Second day in Belgium started a little too early - the girl in the bunk below me got up at 7am, put on her shoes, and then paced loudly around the room for two hours until 9am. I don't even know. Why? (I was actually kind of impressed with how much I managed to see in Belgium, considering the chronic sleep-deprivation leading up to & during that weekend.) Had some interesting life chats with the other girl in the room, who was originally from Uruguay, but currently located in Spain. Most cramped shower of life, brunch, and then I was on my way to Brugge! 
So I'd figured I would try the whole boho/drifter thing of going with the flow for this trip, and as such had no map or plan for Brugge. In my head, I figured the main things would be near the main station, right? Wrong. Sort of. The guy at the info booth said I'd have to take a bus (3 stops!) to get there, so I dutifully bought two bus tickets, & hopped on. Except there's no stop screen display nor speaker announcement, everything was in Flemish, and the bus didn't stop at every stop. Somehow I managed to end up in the suburbs. (Yeah, who knew Brugge was big enough to have suburbs?) 

So I caught the bus going the other way, somehow missed the stop again, and ended up back at the station. #fail. Third time was the charm - after a quick walk through Sint-Salvatorskathedraal, finally managed to get to the historic centre. Walked around half the perimeter of Grote Markt, but all that getting lost business made me pretty ravenous. Wandered down a side street and decided to treat myself to an Italian lunch at La Cantina (not that I'd done anything particularly worthy of being treated, but hey, a girl's gotta eat!)
Got minestrone soup & salmon pasta - it was delicious! Although kind of lonely, eating alone. I think you feel it more acutely at a sit-down restaurant too, especially when it's all set up for two.  
Ended up continuing my wanderings down side streets away from the Markt. I'd heard that Brugge is extremely crowded with tourists in the summer especially, and is basically a commercialized tourist hotspot for the most part now. But somehow I found a bunch of blocks of deserted streets - I guess most visitors don't bother to go past the general tourist attractions. (Which is kind of sad in a way, I suppose - while the main attractions are obviously great, sometimes they don't really embody the spirit of a place.)  
It was another blisteringly hot day, but the castles, canals and bridges were pretty gorgeous. (I really want to go to Venice. After Brugge, "Venice of the North" this summer and Xi Tang, "Venice of the East" two summers ago, I figure the real Venice must be in the near future for me...)

I tried stracciatella ice cream for the first time (after reading about it on 17 & Baking months ago) - the lady cut me off mid-word when I was ordering, so I barely had the opportunity to slaughter the word. Pleased to report that it was pretty heavenly. The little curled wisps of chocolate add the perfect amount of flavour. Checked out the Basilica of the Holy Blood as well, which is said to house a vial of blood of Jesus.  
Stopped in Ghent for about twenty minutes on my way back to Brussels - the bicycle culture in Europe is pretty huge, but here in particular - by Gent-Sint-Pieters station - there was a massive field of bikes. It's kind of incredible. And so much more eco-friendly than in North America! 
So I'd decided to try CouchSurfing for the first time for the Sunday night. I'd looked up the address of P, who I was surfing with, earlier, and it didn't seem that difficult to find. So I got off at Gare Nord and...somehow accidentally wandered into the Red Light District. It was...unexpected. May have accidentally wandered through a crime scene just as the police were packing up as well. 

Before, I'd thought some Canadian streets were bad in terms of labeling and street signs. No, Belgium is much worse. It took ages to find the building, and I ended up going to like three different #23s, because half the time I had no idea whether that was the street. And of course the flats weren't labelled with numbers or letters or any identifier. 

Luckily, B, an Irish guy living in the same building, was super helpful in locating/getting in contact with P. (There were some really nice and interesting people living in that building actually, from Hungary, England...) 
Tried some local fast food concoction for dinner. It was... interesting. All in all, ended day two in Belgium pretty beat, but content. 

Bumming around Brussels (Belgium Day 1)

Still playing catch up with adventuring recaps; a little sad to realize today that I'm already starting to forget details about Brussels (which was only a couple weekends ago, really). Bumming around Belgium was fairly spontaneous (/oh boy, long weekend, last minute decision on where to go), considering I usually like to know some general details before heading somewhere new. Things being what they were, I bought my train ticket to Brussels Friday night after work (ran into A, one of the other interns, & her mom & boyfriend I in the city centre - oddly enough, I'd managed to run into A & I the previous weekend at the Flohmarkt too - seriously, what are the chances?), packed Saturday (May 26) morning, and by noon I was en route to Belgium. 

After being crammed into a corner for the first leg of the journey, meeting a German guy and taking in some sights of rural European country side, I made it in one piece. I arrived in Brussels wondering if I'd made a mistake and wondering how I'd last 3 days there, but by the end of it, I'd fallen in love with the city. Got off at Gare Nord, waited on the platform (which is about 2 storeys above ground level), train was delayed, figured I'd go explore the area. I exited the station to be immediately engulfed by a plume of smog and sand and industrial smells from the platform above (which itself looked completely vintage/ancient).
^ Platform is off to the right of the photo above. So I went back through the station and exited the other side, and found myself deposited in a lively (Turkish?) community. After wandering a bit (& not ending up in the Red Light District - this is relevant to day 3), finally zipped over to Central Station. I think the way I tried to tackle Brussels is different than what I've done with adventures since (although ironically, reversed strategies probably would've been better). Basically... I figured I would just walk around and see what I saw. I mean, I had a vague idea that there were a couple impressive cathedrals, the EU Parliament, Grand Place etc. that I should check out, and the Jazz Marathon was going on, so I figured if I started from the centre, I should be able to hit up a decent number of places. I hadn't even bothered to look up how to get to the hostel I'd booked. Very boho flow.  
I was pleasantly surprised that my French was passably adequate, comprehension-wise. I'd always thought that we'd learned 'Canadian French', but in retrospect, I suppose it makes more sense that with IB we'd actually learned international French. (Met some kids from Quebec at the hostel later, who spoke some 'Quebecker' and it basically all went over my head.) It was a bit humbling and unexpected to see the number of people cradling young children and asking for money. 
I actually managed to hit up a very decent number of places my first day, just by wandering down whatever street/alley looked like it had interesting stuff. So much walking. First place I wandered into was the Cathedral of St. Michael & St. Gudula (I believe this is the one most prominently known as simply the cathedral). I may or may not have entered through the wrong door on the side and accidentally snapped some contraband photos. Eh-hem. It was massive and grand and beautiful, and I think this is the one where a choir came in and sang (although it might've been another one). 
Wandered through lively alleys of restaurants and covered promenades of shops (Galeries Royales St. Hubert?). Sat on the steps of the Bourse/Beurs (location of the Brussels Stock Exchange) and listened to the jazz marathon for a bit, but the sun was blindingly hot and bright so I didn't stay long. (I'd meant to visit the Bourse & sit, since it's apparently a very Brussels-thing to do, but didn't realize I'd done it until after I'd wandered away and doubled around to the back of it. ha.)
Wandered around to some more cathedrals, saw the Manneken Pis, the pissing boy statue iconic of Brussels - he was dressed in football kit that day (in light of the Euro Cup). The Belgian police uniforms are kind of dashing. Was kinda beat by this point, but I really wanted to check out Grand Place/Grote Markt, the central square.
As I was searching for it, I was totally thinking, 'this better be worth it' (little did I know at the time, I would probably double the amount of walking I'd already done by the end of the night). I wandered down an alley and came up alongside one of the building's sides, and thought, 'okay, not bad, the statues on the wall are kind of cool.' Then I stepped out of the tunnel formed by the alley and into the square and just damn. Wow. It was breathtaking. None of the pictures I took do the place justice,'ll just have to visit and see for yourself :)

There was a huge stage set up for the Jazz Marathon, the buildings enclosing the square were all beautiful (in different ways), and the atmosphere was just really lively and chill. (Brussels in general seems to have a very chill, laid-back vibe.) Also checked out the old Stadhuis van Brussel (there was a wedding going on!), which was very nice and historic, much like everything else in Brussels. There are tons of artists too, and paintings of the city being sold in the square. If I weren't backpacking around, totally would've picked one up.
Wandered through the market (there were some really cool crafts, and another jazz band), checked out Eglise Sainte-Marie-Madeline Magdalenakerk, went back to Grand Place, wandered up through Place de L'Abertine/Albertina-Plein, Mont des Arts Kunstberg...
The view was incredible, the sun was shining, people were out and about...was definitely starting to fall for the city. Brussels has so many gorgeous parks, and when the weather's nice, everyone's just outside chillaxing, tanning, etc. It was a really hot weekend, and there were lots of shirtless people too...European liberalness! 
Photo below was taken at Eglise St-Jacques sur Coudenberg. Wanted to explore more, but it was starting to get late so I dragged my weary self back to Central Station and began figuring out the ordeal of how exactly I was going to make it to the hostel. There was a nice guy at the bus stop with really dark hair, really pale skin, a kind smile and deep, soulful musician eyes. He didn't know how to get to the hostel either, but was helpful about Brussels public transit. Managed to decipher the map to figure out which bus to take and what stop to get off, yay!

On the bus, some cute Turkish guy from Paris ended up sitting beside me. We were talking, and I mentioned that I was going to Paris in July, and he was all like, "I'll show you around!" In North America, phrases like that get tossed around pretty casually, so I'm just kind of like, "haha, sure." And then he gave me contact info - guess he was actually serious. So then I get to the hostel finally, look in the mirror, and realize there's a squished bug on my face. Yeeaahh, haha.
I got into the hostel room and was a little freaked out that I'd have to take a top bunk. I've always slept on the bottom bunk, either at camp or back when I had a bunk bed (since I used to fall off the bed when I was little). So this was a slight panic moment, but on the bright side, less chance of theft if I'm on a top bunk, right?

Met some cool people at the hostel. There were two guys in the kitchen, one from Nepal and one from an island near Madgascar. Ended up hanging out in the backyard with a varied group of guys from different places - L.A./California, Montreal, Barcelona, Argentina, Russia... (The way he said 'Barcelona' with a Spanish trill - something like 'Bar-thay-lo-na'? - was definitively cooler than the regular English way.)

It's definitely be a fascinating experience, backpacking. There's kind of a level of being able to relate to other travelers and have really intriguing conversations with random strangers at a grass roots level. While traveling with family is comfortable, it's not quite the same - I mean, do I really need sharks in the lobby and full spread Western breakfasts every morning? Maybe when I'm older, I'll appreciate that sort of thing more - but at this age, maybe it's not so bad to push boundaries and seek out raw experiences by stepping out of comfort zones.

I had to climb up onto the top bunk in the dark. But I made it! :)


Just said goodbye to A & N, two of the other interns. The office already feels lonelier without them.

N & I started on the same day, so we went through getting security tags & introductions together. Met A half an hour later as we were given a quick tour. It's crazy to think that this was 5 weeks ago.

It might not seem like you'd get that attached in the span of a month, but coming to a foreign country like this by myself for the first time, it was comforting to have people who'd gone through similar experiences and could relate. It was kind of like having two older sisters, in a way.

V finished her internship recently as well. In some ways, the whole intern culture is a bit of a revolving door of meeting new people, having them in your life for a short period of time, and then dispersing to different parts of the world again, embarking on the next great adventure.

Thanks for the great times, ladies - it's a small world, I'm sure we'll see each other again some day! :)

local shenanigans

So behind on so many administrative things, just thinking about catching up is a little intimidating. Haven't been doing the best with recapping either...but I don't want to go too out of order. But here's week 3 (starting May 19th). Some of the memories already feel like they're receding into the past, pushed aside by new ones.

Taking a number of factors into consideration, I ended up deciding to stick around in town. On Saturday, I checked out the Flohmarkt (basically a gigantic flea market - they happen once a month in the summer and people from all around the region come with wares). It was certainly very interesting to experience. There were definitely thousands of people in attendance. Yet somehow, surrounded by so many people, it was one of the loneliest I've felt since getting here. Probably because English wasn't nearly understood by as many people here. A combination of close proximity to big crowds and seemingly insurmountable language barriers leads to a weird feeling of being surrounded but isolated. 

Nevertheless, it was a pretty cool experience. Things sold ranged from typical garage sale wares (think childhood toys, vintage clothes, old junk) to antique treasures (Polaroids, old cameras, type writers) to boho clothing to hand made crafts (jewelry, carvings, African statues, wooden utensils). All in all, it was pretty cool - kind of like seeing living German history on a more personal level. I would've really liked to have picked up a type writer, but it just isn't realistic to do so. 
Grabbed one of those German sausage + round bun things for a snack and then settled down by the water. Somehow, lying there in the grass among the ants and goose poo, was kind of nice and peaceful. (It really was better than it sounds haha.) The sky was a phenomenal gradient of blue; the photo barely does it justice.

But anyway, picked up some bio gurken and headed back. On the U-bahn, saw a couple stations advertising Ménage à trois - and what do you know, the next day was the last for the display! So of course I had to head over to the Bundeskuntshalle on Sunday.
Ménage à trois featured collaborations between and collections of three New Yorker artists - Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Francesco Clemente. (I know, the irony of a Canadian seeing American artwork in Germany...) I'll admit - when I first got there, I kind of felt like a poseur, trying to decipher these pieces of art work like a pseudo-connoisseur, and failing miserably. (Elusive teachings from high school art weren't really effective.) But I really got into it after a while - there's something about the artwork and the atmosphere that really draws you in. 

Andy Warhol's iconic pop art was amazing, as can be expected. Basquiat had some pretty cool stuff. And I was pleasantly surprised by how much I ended up liking some of Clemente's pieces. There were a number of collaborative pieces that were great as well. Especially liked 'Handball' and 'Origin of Cotton'. Also checked out the Romy Schneider exhibit since I was already there anyway, and that was fairly fascinating as well. 
Had a couple transportation fails that week. For example, while not really paying attention (or expecting other buses to go through the stop) somehow managed to get on the wrong bus and ended up some place new... adventure! There was also one night where I was supposed to go check out a WG (flat-share) at 7:30, and possibly another one at 8:30, but somehow, writing down the addresses in a rush that morning, I managed to reverse them.

So basically I showed up at the 8:30 that I was maybe-going-to-drop-by-maybe-not at 7:30, only realizing my mistake upon arrival. And considering they were about 3km apart, there was no way to get to the other. *sigh* The people at the supposed-to-be-8:30 were all pretty nice. One thing one of the guys said kind of resonated - we were talking about furniture (and basically just the necessities of bed, desk & chair) and how living abroad, you learn to settle for a lot less and lower your standards. Which I suppose is true - and maybe not a bad thing.

^ This post reads like a fumbling mess. Whatever, it's 2 in the morning, time to crash. G'night!

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