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Poker Face

For me, Estonia was a bar in Tartu and 6 hours laying face down on a massage table.

I’m serious. I did go to Tallinn, but I really have nothing to say about it other than it’s a city and I had amazing strawberries.  We were looking for some excitement, but it never presented itself. And so we headed to Tartu…

I found a host for us, she is a triathlete and getting her PhD in evolutionary biology. That is enough to make you cool in my book, and she did not disappoint. In fact, she was much, much more than that. Margot is intelligent, beautiful, and edgy in her own way. She also possess what I would later learn to be the Estonian Poker Face.

Alright, I am perhaps more emotionally effusive than most people, but sometimes being around Estonians makes me feel like I am taking crazy pills by contrast. Telling the story of how Maria and I met takes like 20 minutes, but when you ask an Estonian how they met their spouse/partner/whatever you are given a 3 sentence explanation.

“Well, he works in my lab. And one day I just asked him out. Now we live together.”

Alright, good talk.

Maria and I have a knack with getting people to come out of their shell a bit, and to our delight this was the case with Margot and her boyfriend. We heard all kinds of stories about him about how he is quiet and never says anything to anyone, ever. So imagine our surprise when he came home and we started talking to him and he actually spoke to us.  Not only that, but he took us out for beer and talks to us for hours. 

Oh by the way, yeah, another side-story of Estonia is that I realized as I sipped my “morning” coffee around noon, that we had been in Estonia for 8 days and had yet to make it 12 hours without drinking. I really had no idea how that happened, it truly took me by surprise, but now I completely understand why this is an Eastern European stereotype. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that the bar we went to had free chocolate.

Margot, her friend Riina, Marko, and this other couchsurfer from New Zealand Hayden spent a lot of time with us in this particular bar.

It was in this bar that the subject of tattoos came up. Riina and Margot have awesome tattos. Apparently, the guy who did Riina’s actually lives in Tartu. His name is Mico and he is super busy. Thankfully, Riina is extremely charming and managed to contact him and “beg” him to meet with me about a tattoo while I was in town.

See, I have been wanting one for a while. Since January when I did Ayahuasca. If any of you remember my entry about Killing Bears and Taming Wolves, you might recall that I lucid-dreamed about a tattoo. Well, I later drew this design out while I was huddled next to a fire in France. Ever since then I have been waiting patiently for the universe to present me with the opportunity to get this drug-induced tattoo done (sorry mom). And this was looking promising.

Mico agreed to meet with me, and I threw down my drawings proudly waiting for some reaction.

BAM
BAM

I really didn’t know if I could trust anyone else to do it. I swear, his work was some of the most precise artwork I have ever seen, in fact, I didn’t even know some of the stuff he did was possible to tattoo. So even if he wasn’t super into MY design, I didn’t really care as long as he could get the job done. 

Then we talked about price.

“How much can you give me?”

“Uh…excuse me?”

“Well, I know you’re traveling, so how much are you prepared to spend.”

“I know I am traveling, but I want to pay you for your work.”

And then I gave him the estimated figure. To protect his reputation I will not publish it, but suffice to say it was a modest price. Even for something that wouldn’t take long, which he didn’t seem to think this would.

It ended up taking 6 hours.

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This is what dedication to an experience looks like. I got to spend a lot of time with Mico and get to know him a little bit. It was actually quite a pleasant experience. I am still blown away by the conspiring done by Margot and Riina to make this happen. It was really a group effort. Margot even held my hand when it was being done, and Riina showed up a few hours in to give me (and Mico) snacks. 

I managed to walk all around Tartu both at night and in the day time, I think at one point I also drank a liter of beer and had wild boar. But this is what I will remember about Estonia. I made new friends and I surprised myself when the time finally came to ramble on, I was actually sad to leave. 

The people make everything. This should come as no surprise. I’ve seen hundreds of cities, hundreds of churches, had countless coffees, countless beers, read countless maps. After a while it all starts to look the same. What I remember about places is not the way the cities look, it is who I met while I was there. The people are the story and they stay with you even after you’re gone.

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Belgium Bewitchment

Belgium is wonderful and everyone should visit at least once in their lives. For you, at least, this is the best place you could have chosen to spend the coldest days of the year.

Your opinion includes three cities; Brussels, Gent, and Antwerp (you didn’t exactly make it to Bruges – see previous entry). But you feel as though you have a good sense of this place, because let’s face it, if you’re not going to one of the aforementioned cities then what the hell are you doing in Belgium anyway?

Brussels:

Let’s just start from the beginning. You first landed yourself in Brussels, the self-proclaimed uglyImage city. It’s not ugly, it is just sort of inconsistent architecturally, which for Europe you guess is something of note. But this is the capitol of Europe where you can go to European Parliament and watch official bureaucrats on their official lunch breaks eating their official sandwiches. You can also drink outstanding beer and have the best waffle you’ve ever had in your entire life. Oh and see the fountain (a toddler peeing) which is not that cool, but nevertheless, a tourist attraction. (You can also get waffles for 1 euro right across the street)

You and Maria followed the advice of your tour map and purchased some chocolate from a local supermarket. Apparently the quality is the same it’s just way cheaper to buy it there. Indeed. It is no secret that Belgians take chocolate very seriously, and this was something you were very keen on exploring. Verdict: amazing. 

and also the cheapest way to include nuts i
70% or gtfo

Your couch surfing host took you out to a bar that night where you had your first beer in Belgium. This goes without saying, but all the rumors are true. Belgians take their beer fucking seriously, and as a result it is seriously fucking delicious. It’s also on average, 2.5 times stronger than the average beer you’d drink in America. You decided to start off your beer-tasting with a triple Chimay. Good choice.

Gent:

But you can get Chimay in the U.S. too, no big deal. You wanted something you could only get in Belgium. You wanted some 11% abbey beer, something that only the locals know about. Which brings you to Gent…

not to be confused with Hogwarts
not to be confused with Hogwarts

Brussels was cool, and you had an awesome waffle in addition to walking around in the snow looking for grocery stores, but your happiness simply bloomed when you arrived in Gent. Holy shitballs this city is beautiful. It is small and full of towering cathedrals and everything looks like it’s straight out of the 16th century. It is here that you experienced another staple of Belgium in addition to beer; frites.

nomnomnom
nomnomnom

That overflowing packet of fried goodness cost you 2.25 euro and you are certain that is the best 2.25 you’ve spent here. Belgians also take their fries very seriously and it shows. They are actually fried twice, and served with everything. Yum.

Back to the beer…Your amazing hosts Liesbeth and Sven provided you with your own room, your own bathroom, and a fridge full of beer. Sven and Liesbeth are not very heavy drinkers (despite being Belgian) but they made sure you and Maria could sample as many flavors as possible. It was glorious and you are eternally grateful.

pinch me, I must be dreaming
pinch me, I must be dreamming

You had lots of beer (and if your dad happens to be reading this, you would like him to know that the beer is everything he thinks it will be and more). Now you skipped Bruges so you don’t have much to say about that but Gent was where you became aware of your love for Belgium. The true moment of realization was when you were walking down the streets on trash day, and everyone had set their trash outside of their doors in an orderly fashion, sorted for recycling. *swoon*

Antwerp:

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Antwerp, from what you can tell, is like the European San Francisco. This is what San Francisco aspires to be. Everyone rides fixie bikes and has mustaches, only it’s not hipster, it’s just European. It is a harbor city, and the only one that knows how to do coffee right. Antwerp is the land of diamonds and fashion, but they also have a very interesting coffee culture. It is as if there were different variations of Blue Bottle Coffee all around, except they have different themes and the coffee is better. (There, you said it.)

Your first stop was the famous Caffenation. However, you arrived at the old location because your travel guidebook was pretty out of date. You happened upon a literal closet with 3 stools at a window ledge and one guy behind the counter. When you asked for the toilet, you were lead into a dodgey back room where the door was missing a glass pane and had a giant wire running through it. You were instructed not to shut the light off because it was connected to his refrigerator. There was hardly enough room for you and your bag to exist in the space, but my god did he brew you an excellent cup of coffee.

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It is rare in Europe to get drip coffee. Usually you are confined to espresso or the pitiful americano, and you have a hard time justifying the extra 1.50 euro for them to add water. All things considered, your barista promised you a tasty cup, and he delivered. This was also the moment when Maria’s life was forever changed. 

IMG_8568That was the moment she transcended into being a true coffee connoisseur. “Oh my god, it’s about flavor.” You also enjoyed your cup and after you met your host, you proceeded to the next location. Broer Bretle. This was a bit more like Blue Bottle in the way they make their coffee, and the atmosphere was excellent. Chess boards and interesting music along with 70’s wallpaper and more mustaches.

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Tomorrow you will head to Coffee Lab and the new, larger location for Caffenation. You will also check out the Friday street market and an 80 year old pedestrian tunnel and a book printing museum. You are set to leave on Sunday and between Antwerp and your next “event” you probably won’t have time to update again but suffice to say, Belgium has been an awesome experience and you are totally looking forward to coming back in the summertime. 

You’ve had the best waffles, beer, fries, and chocolate, along with the best COFFEE (you were not expecting that) and everyone is attractive and polite. Nevermind that it is the dead of winter and you are freezing your ass off all the time, this place really is the business.