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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. 

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Thoughts on Traveling in the Winter

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You just had a meltdown in Starbucks in the city center of Gent. Granted, you captured maybe 2 hours of sleep last night and have been having quite a day mentally battling with yourself. Still, there is no excuse for that shit. And yet, here you are.

It began with a walk to a poor hitch-hiking spot on your way to Bruges. You tried for a few minutes with no success. Then, your second spot landed you two lifts, but unfortunately none of the drivers were actually going to Bruges (did they even read your sign?). You decided to embark on a last effort to the east side of the city and try to get a lift out there. However, it was a very, very long walk. IMG_8504

You would also like to mention that it was a brisk -5 C (23 degrees Fahrenheit)  out that morning (the weather report actually said something like “freezing fog” but you don’t think you saw any of that, whew!).  It was in this, that you trudged along, listening to the rhythm of your boots crunching over the snow and ice packed on the sidewalk.

You were uncomfortable. You were tired. That kind of super-fatigued tired that just radiates out of your core and makes your muscles feel like molasses. Your hands were numb, bunched into fists inside your gloves, which were shoved inside the pockets of your North Face jacket. Your face stung and so did your nasal passages when you took a breath. It was like this the entire walk to god-knows-where. You weren’t sure. You followed Maria loyally as she asked for directions and briefly consulted you on which way you ought to turn.

You were kind of indifferent. You began to entertain thoughts like “Bruges probably isn’t that cool.” and “If we don’t get a lift before 2pm we should call this off.” You checked your watch. 12:17. Damn. Almost two more hours of this.

Finally, she turned to you and sounded serious.

“My heart is breaking for you right now.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, I didn’t know it was going to be this far to the road. I know you’re tired and I feel like I’m taking you on a death march. I just want to know how you’re feeling.”

And with that, you promptly burst into tears.

You didn’t want to go. If it meant spending more time out in this cold, you wanted nothing to do with it, and promptly sought refuge inside an outdoors store and ate a cookie you had packed. Ah, much better.

But it didn’t end there. Once you decided to forego hitch-hiking to Bruges, you came up with a contingency plan to get more frites (which were god-damn-delicious) at the place you went yesterday, provided they were not closed. You put on your head phones and began the long (but noticeably more cheerful) walk back to the city center.

You had your frites outside on a bench. Not ideal, but they were so good that you forgot about how utterly cold you were. Then you made a point to find the coffee shop that had alluded you the day before. Found it. Bam. Ordered a 3 euro latte and ate another cookie.

IMG_8562This is where Maria broke the news that you would probably have to camp on your way to Normandy after Antwerp. Oh man, not exactly what you wanted to hear. The idea of pitching your tent on a pile of snow did not make you feel warm and fuzzy inside. However, you agreed that this was the optimal scenario.  You can handle it. This is what travelling is all about, being butch and doing crazy things like camping in the snow and what not.

And you know what? This day was looking up, for sure. Hey, you were indoors, which any local will tell you is the best place to be. Unfortunately, this would be the high-point of your day. 

It was not sufficiently warm in this place, although your latte was delicious. So you decided to relocate to a Starbucks and snag a seat upstairs and wait out there until 6 pm when you were to meet up with one of Maria’s friends. This is where it all went downhill.

You arrived upstairs to find it completely packed with students and you were overwhelmed with anxiety. Maria grabbed two empty discarded ceramic mugs off the table (which you are certain everyone saw) and plop them down awkwardly on the end of a long table and went to search for chairs. You did not like this. Not one bit. You felt awkward, and like everyone was judging you for totally barging in, stealing used cups to avoid paying for a drink, and try to find space. In other words, you were acting completely irrational.

So you cried again.

Sitting at the edge of the table, Maria tries her best to figure out whats going on. The truth is, you don’t really know. You just hate life. You have been cold for the entire day and you’re exhausted (probably also hormonal) and you just were not expecting to walk into a goddamn packed room full of people looking at you funny and talking about you in Dutch (probably….right?)

What the hell is wrong with you? Why is it that you break down in the most benign situations? You should be ashamed of yourself (check). But after you had some time to distill all of these ridiculous feelings of yours, you have determined that you learned some pretty valuable things in the last 4 days of your life.

1. The daily temperature has a new meaning when you spend multiple hours outside in it. 

You posted something on your facebook about you and Maria getting bundled up because it was 23 degrees outside. A friend of yours commented that that was nothing! They lived in New York where it was like this for months and all they needed was a pea coat and a scarf, no gloves. Well you know what? Fuck you. I bet that works when you’re just walking from for front door to your car. Or two blocks from the metro station to the bar. You want to tell them to try spending 5 consecutive hours outside and then talk to you about how warm they are in their two layers of cotton and jeans.

2. Being warm costs money.

You realized quickly that being outside in such cold for long periods of time is not fun and the prospect of being warm utterly consumes you. This is when you start fantasizing about holding a hot coffee and sitting at a table next to a heater, or even better a real fire. It becomes all you can think about. The problem is, there is rarely any free indoor space. In the summertime, when you get tired, or want to eat your packed lunch, you can just make your way to the nearest park and throw your backpack under a tree and spend all the time you want there. You can be outside all day and have a grand time. This is not true in winter. It is simply too uncomfortable to enjoy anything after you have been outside in 20 degrees for 4 hours. Everything is wet and or frozen. There is no rest but in coffee shops and in order to utilize this space, you must buy something.

3. You don’t fit anywhere with a backpack.

Coffee shops are small. Your backpack is not. There is nothing more awkward than having to lift a camping backpack over someone’s head as you squeeze into a corner table and try to order the cheapest thing on the menu and stay there for 3 hours. And even if you really didn’t have the money for a coffee and just wanted to go into a shop, let’s say, to look at the 400 beers brewed in Belgium, you can’t because you have a giant pack strapped to you. You are then, limited to larger shops, and of course, it is less acceptable to spend loads of time there.

4. Your couch surfing hosts can’t meet you until after *insert time*PM. 

This is the main reason you have learned the first 3 lessons. It would be great if someone met you as soon as you arrived in the city. You could put your bag down, have a cup of tea and then walk around light as a feather for an hour or two at a time. Also in a perfect world, you could come and go as you pleased, always knowing you had access to a warm space to thaw out. But that has not been the case since you arrived. In fact, the only scenario you know is the following: You cannot meet you host before 6pm, so you must hang out in the city with your pack until then. Once you leave your hosts house in the morning, you are not allowed to return until after 6pm. See lessons 1-3 and repeat as necessary.

In conclusion, travelling in the winter is hard, and you just wanted to let everyone know.