Sunday, June 30, 2013

Brussels, Belgium → Milan, Italy

So, we wandered. We crossed the river and headed into town, with Delirium circled on a small map, and that's it. We passed a huge museum with banners for a Da Vinci exhibit (which was closed, which saddened both of us, as we were leaving very early the next day). We ended up on some cobblestone streets lined with shops and lots of people. And chocolate. Chocolate everywhere! We wandered into stores with giant displays of cookies and sweets, and more chocolate! We stopped in one place and I bought a couple marzipan chocolates, and a vegan chocolate bar, all of which were amazingly good.
Like John Malkovich in real life

And when we started walking again, we hit the end of the street which opened up into Le Grand Place. We hadn't been expecting this. We'd been walking through the narrow, crowded streets and it opened up into this square, and the buildings were gold, and the sun was casting golden light on everything, and we both jerked to a stop and gasped. It was so, so beautiful. And there is really no way to take a picture of it that can properly convey how awesome these buildings are, and how much space you suddenly have outside of the crooked alleyways, and how vast it looks, standing in the middle of it. It was really just lovely.

a small corner of the square

Apparently the square is relatively close to the peeing boy statue that everyone's obsessed with, but I had no idea it was anywhere near us until much, much later and miles and miles away from Belgium. So we took our awestruck selves out of the square and headed down some very small alleyways, all lined with tables, all full of people, creating narrow walkways where crowds of people were creeping through. The sun was setting, but the buildings being so close together, the lights were already on outside all the restaurants, and all the hosts stood outside proffering menus to passersby. It was fantastic. It was how I dreamed Europe. We turned a thin, sharp corner and almost walked right passed Delirium, until I looked up and saw their little elephant logo and proclaimed, "We're here!"
We walked into the ground floor and took a look at the menu, but nothing caught my eye. It also happened to be the floor with the American beers, so it didn't seem all that exciting. Until we went downstairs. Downstairs, the walls and ceiling were plastered in different beer trays, and there were display cases and posters everywhere. We headed over to look at the menu in this part of the bar and it was ridiculous. Passionfruit beer?! Chocolate beer?? They had Lambic (my favourite!) and a bunch of other fruity beers I wanted to try, but I had to get passionfruit. I have to get passionfruit anything.
It was freaking amaaaaazing.
Noah wanted to get something on tap and went with one of Delirium's beers, which was quite good, too. I was trying to decide on a second and realized I still had a chocolate bar in my bag. Naturally, having wanted to drink Belgian beer and eat Belgian chocolate, I realized I could do both AT THE SAME TIME. Obviously, chocolate beer should go good with chocolate chocolate, so I went with that. It was a good choice.

the 'yeah, it's chocolate beer, so what?' face

So, happily full of beer and chocolate, we headed back into the almost dark to finish up our wandering before going back to the hostel, and internet! I had figured I wouldn't have internet most of the trip, but wifi was dangerously easy to find in the UK. I stopped looking as hard once we left, but it was nice to know I could use it at the hostel. In the meantime, the sun was staying out until after ten, so we had plenty of time to wander. We ran into St. Catherine's church not too far away, which I fell in love with. It looked as if it had burned at some point. All the paint was peeling off the sides and plants were growing along the edges. I wanted to go inside so badly.

Langostas en todos lugares!

I also fell in love with these statues. There were four of them in different poses around the
 middle monument in the fountain. This guy was my favourite.

 It was getting dark, so we wandered around in search of food, which was an unsuccessful mission (why does everything close so early in Europe?!). In hopes of the 24 hour bar having something I could eat, we headed back to the hostel. It was pretty late at this point, but there were ridiculous amounts of people still up, wandering around the bar. I decided to be ambitious and put on some laundry because my one jacket that I had brought was starting to smell a little scary. It was really late, the washer took about 4 hours to go through a cycle, and we were leaving early in the morning, so obviously laundry was a good idea (sarcasm!).
In any case, we headed to the bar for wifi and drinks and food, but the wifi didn't work and the only thing I could eat was chips. Oh, well. At least they weren't salt and vinegar.
We got up super early and had their super classy breakfast - speculoos and toast!
Then it was time to head to the airport and Italy!!! I have wanted to got Italy for my entire life. I've been dreaming of it since I was a kid, so needless to say, I was pretty excited. It had been between Florence and Milan as a stopping point before the real destination, and Milan was cheaper, so it got chosen by default. Plus, there was only enough time to stay for a day or so, and when I go to Florence, I want to be able to spend a good chunk of time, to be able to see museums and explore a bit more. There was also the fact that when I was little and used to play Where in the World is Carmen San Diego? with my friend, we used to run into Milan and Singapore all the time, and wanted very badly to go to both.
The metro was supposed to go straight out toward the airport, so, backpacks in tow, that's where we headed. The metro stop had the most amazing art - flying people everywhere, headed toward a floating cloud. My mom came across similar art in London.

 The metro spit us out at a bus stop, and the little map we had in hand was completely useless. We had no idea what street we were on or what direction we needed to go, and all the signs nearby were horrendously uninformative. I did, however, know what number bus we needed to get us to the airport, and after much circle walking and frustrated mumbling, I braved up and walked up to one of the bus drivers, asked him in French where the 257 (or whatever) bus showed up. He looked at me like I was crazy, and I panicked. My French was terrible! I said it wrong! I insulted his mother! But he just waved a hand and said, 'Right here, at the blonde.' The blonde? Now I was confused. I repeated the number of the bus and he laughed at me and explained (and I actually understood) that all the bus areas were colour coded and we were actually in just the right spot, and that it should be coming soon. I was very relieved that the look was because he thought I was messing with him, and not because I was making no sense. So feeling rather pleased with myself, I walked off the bus just in time to find my bus arriving, and headed to the airport successfully!
The plane ride was relatively uneventful. Toward the end, a camera crew materialized and started filming a man across from me eating his airplane food. I watched them with detached interest as they zoomed in on him chewing over and over again for a half hour.
Holy shit, the Alps!

I found this to be much more interesting. I'm pretty sure I can't convey (and the pictures definitely can't) how awesome these mountains are. I had been my usual conked-out self the second I sat down on the plane, but halfway through the flight I opened my eyes and was digging around my bag trying to find something to eat, when I happened to notice a swath of white off in the distance. I squinted at it for a while, trying to figure out what it was without my glasses on, and finally realized - mountains. And not any mountains. The freaking Alps. They were beautiful, and dotted with lakes, little villages, and big, twisty rivers. I spent the rest of the flight pressed to the window just trying to take it all in. It wasn't too much longer until the plane touched down in Milan, and my brain turned into a broken record - "Oh my god, I'm in Italy. I'm in ITALY. I'M in Italy!!!!" It was kind of on repeat for about the first hour.
There was a convenient little shuttle bus that headed to the train station in the middle of town, and from there it was an quick subway ride to the hostel. I had really, very good hostel experiences this trip. They were all at least relatively clean, the people were usually  nice, they were generally in good areas. But Milan was the exception. This place was awful. It was far enough away from everything to be a pain to get to, the area was terrible, and the guys running the place were pretty shady. Walking in, they asked to see passports and I had the feeling I wasn't going to see it again if I handed it over.
They did give it back, though, and led us up to this room that was absolutely empty except for three very bare beds, and one nervous British guy in one corner. He sat up as we walked in, and the guys explained that this was our room, there were no lockers for our stuff (or any form of security for that matter), and we didn't get keys. If we all left the room, they'd lock the door, and if one of us came back (if?!), they'd let us in. There was one bathroom for the whole floor, and when they left, the Brit (who we soon learned was called Joe) informed us that there had only been two beds when he had arrived, and they'd asked him to move his bed so they could drag another one in from somewhere. Classy.
So we dumped our stuff and were getting to know our Milan roommate when the front desk guys returned and waved Joe over, out of the room. He had that schoolchild "oh no, I'm in trouble" look on his face as he walked out to see what the guy wanted. They stood just outside the door, speaking in hushed tones for a bit, and then Joe returned looking perplexed. He informed us that the guy had hurriedly, and in a whisper, explained that the bathroom was right here through this door, and that he could shower if he liked. Apparently we were not seen fit to have this information, since it was necessary to relay it to our roommate in a whisper. They must have believed we couldn't possibly be in cahoots yet, having just met. Unfortunately for them, we did figure out where the bathroom was, and that we could use it.
They did not, however, have towels, any  manner of soap, or a lock on the bathroom door. We hung out in the room for a good long while, discussing the various scenarios in which we were all murdered in our sleep and/or packed like sardines into the room as they just kept loading in more beds. It was also decided that at least an hour should be spent using the wifi (they did have wifi) to look up reviews of the hostel, which ranged so wildly from good to awful that the majority of them had to be fake. One said the guests were woken up repeatedly throughout the night and asked to move so that they could continue to bring more people in to sleep on the floor. Another said their "free" breakfast cost money and consisted of croissants with the consistency of burnt, microwaved plastic. All the bad reviews sounded frighteningly bad, and Joe was ridiculously hilarious in his descriptions of how our bad situation could actually be much worse (spiders!). He was traveling by train throughout Europe from England, and Milan was just a stop on his way to Germany. It also turned out that he was even more awful at figuring out where the hell he was going than I am, so his stories made me feel a little bit better about my inability to walk in the correct direction on the first try.
We finally decided we trusted him enough not to steal our shit and various electronics, and headed back to the metro to find the Duomo, which was the only thing (besides the Last Supper painting, which requires reservations made on the day of your birth) that I really had to see in Milan.
The metro was dingy and made me more nervous than any we'd yet been on, but very fast, which was a plus. And getting off at the Duomo stop, you literally walk up the stairs right into it, which was surprising, and convenient!
It was kind of breathtaking.

The amount of detail in these buildings is amazing.

The metro exit  let you out to one side of the Duomo, and the whole area opened up into a giant square, with a big arch framing a shopping area on one side and a giant statue in the middle, surrounded by lions. And everybody was (surprise!) climbing on the lions for photos, so naturally I had to, too. I'll take any chance to climb anything, though.
 I wanted to stay here all day. It was absolutely beautiful and I found myself just turning around and around to take everything in. Heading off to one side toward the row of gelato shops and souvenir stands, someone had dragged a piano out into the square, and a man was singing and playing while people danced around him in the sun.

Trying for some shade. That thing was not easy to climb up on!

lions and birds!
To be continued

Saturday, June 29, 2013

London, England → Lille, France → Brussels, Belgium

So keeping in the theme of being super tourists, the next morning we got up early to go to Stonehenge. Remember the books I mentioned in an earlier post, the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon? Yeah, so there's a bit of an obsession with standing stones, too. Oh, how I should have loved to have spent a week touring the whole UK, hunting down standing stones and praying for time travel. But that's for another trip, I guess.
In the mean time, we asked Scott how best to get to Victoria station from where we were (a half an hour train ride away, at least), and really early in the morning. We had it all planned out, woke up, and promptly missed the train we should have been on. Great. But we can still make it, right?
We get on the next train, 15 minutes later, and arrive at the tube station at Victoria, late. We run outside, expecting the buses to be where we had seen all the buses lined up the day before, but this is the wrong spot. We ask a bus driver where we should go and he waves us in the opposite direction, around the building. We run through the station. Someone else tells us to go two blocks down across the street. We run over there. There are no buses, but there are buses across the street in the other direction. We run for about 30 minutes in this 4 block radius until we somehow miraculously, accidentally stumble upon our bus, sitting quietly about 20 feet from where we'd first walked off the tube. But we made it! It was late leaving, and left just after we got on. Upon which I promptly fell asleep (of course).
I've been dreaming of going to Europe since I was a kid, at least twelve, but probably younger. In my mind, the one thing I had to see when I finally made it here, was Stonehenge. I don't know why. It just exemplified Europe for me. To go there and not see Stonehenge would have just been wrong, somehow. And I realize it's very touristy, and I wasn't expecting some life changing experience, but I just had to see it, you know? We told all our new London friends we were going there and they all laughed, and later, we told other people we had been there, and they all laughed, and asked why we wanted to go. I just had to see it, that's all.
And it was crowded, and noisy, and we were all being trucked in by the busload (bussed in by the truckload?), but it was also beautiful and the sky was gorgeous, and I'm so happy I went, and got to see it in person.

stupid, happy face (and Jamie Fraser scarf!)

We had an hour and fifteen minutes-ish to wander, so we walked around the circle taking beaucoup des photos. I got too interested in taking photos of tourists posing for photos, though - people are so strange. They were lining up hands to make it look as if they were squishing Stonehenge between their fingers. Unlined up and from a different point of view, all these people just look crazy.

Behind Stonehenge is a big, open field filled with sheep and a lot of sheep shit. It was nearly impossible to walk, and the grass was really high, which was a little frightening. Apparently Woodhenge is also close by, but we didn't have enough time to wander too far, so we satisfied ourselves with chasing sheep around, trying to catch pictures of the babies.

By the time we got back into London town, it was pretty late in the day and we were tired. We headed in the direction of Tibits again; our normal routine of wandering around with our phones out until we caught someone's wifi in order to find a vegan restaurant seemed too tiring when we were so hungry. Before we found the restaurant, we stumbled into Pride (actually, ,we heard it from about ten blocks up), and then into the most amazing and humongous toy store I have ever seen. It was six stories high and had an entire floor just for Legos. I would have died in there as a child. From happiness.
 Paddington!! It's a good thing I had to consider the fact that anything I bought would have to be carried on my back for 3 weeks. It saved me from buying lots of useless stuff. Although, really. Paddington!!
They were in love.
 Shakespeare pub! We also wandered passed the Globe theatre, which happened to be showing Macbeth. I planned on going, but it was authentic (see: outdoor) and it rained the only day I had free time. Boo.
Classiest pigeon ever.

 We also happened upon an Irregular Choice store, which I drooled so hard over that I had to be led out of there by force. If ever I was tempted to buy stuff in spite of having to lug it all around for three weeks, it was here. Ohhh man was it ever.

We had planned on meeting up with a friend (Lukas!) that night, so we headed back to Scott's to change, and then hopped right back on the damn tube toward Camden town. We hadn't had time to look for food that I could eat, so I settled for my now usual meal of salt and vinegar chips and a giant bottle of water. We had planned on either staying with Lukas or at least spending the night out with him, but after much searching of the internets, we were only able to catch a bus out of London reeeally far too early in the morning the next day. But we headed out anyway, for a bit at least.
Lukas was our roommate when we first moved to Portland, and we hadn't seen him in some large amount of years (four, five?). It was lovely to see him, and meet his old bandmates (some of which were from Italy, and gave us tips on where to go!), and get a can from the market near the bar because they charged 8 euro for one bloody drink.

We managed a few hours of sleep, and Scott offered to walk us to the Crystal Palace tube station the next morning and show us the Victorian dinosaur park that we'd been meaning to go to since we arrived. It was freaking cool (seriously, best way to describe it). The dinosaurs were all designed and built in the Victorian era, and their ideas of what these guys looked like is quite different from what we now think. Some have had minor restorations, but for the most part, they've been left alone. The park was huge and winding, with a lake and tons of trails to get lost on. Scott was knowledgeable about everything we asked him about (and we asked some random questions) and it was fantastic getting to stay with him, and meeting all the pirates! I also found it highly amusing that everyone kept asking us if we were 'going to Europe' next. Weren't we in Europe? I guess it's the same concept as us Hawaii folk calling the rest of the continental US "the mainland".

I still need to look this up. Curse not having data on my phone over there!
So we headed back down to Victoria station, having a slightly better idea of where we were headed, but having not been able to purchase tickets yet, we were a little worried we were even going to get on a bus. We hung around until the ticket office opened, then found the bus station and our bus on the first try (miracle of miracles). Stocking up on Pret a Manger was then necessary for the bus ride (it grew on me while we were there, I suppose) because I was worried I wasn't going to have anything to eat for the next 24 hours (I was getting tired of salt and vinegar chips). It was a nine and a half hour ride, with one short stop in Lille, France. And we were going through the Chunnel.

France is that-a-way!

Now, I am actually quite claustrophobic. It's not completely out of control, but I do have problems with enclosed spaces. And in any case, when we found it was cheaper to take a bus than a train across the Channel, we both assumed it would be maybe on a ferry, or some such thing. But, see, what they do is they put you on a bus, they put the bus on a train, and then they put that train in the little freaking tunnel under the English Channel. And when they drive that bus onto the train, there's, like, two feet of space between the bus and the wall. And then the train starts moving and your ears pop, and the sun goes away from the windows, and you realize you're under however many tons of water (there's a sign on the wall to let you know just how many), and my little heart starts to race a little bit too fast. Luckily, they don't care at all if you wander about while the train is moving - most likely because they shut the bus off, so the only bathroom options are at the very front or the very back of the very long train. Our bus was in the middle. So as soon as we started off, I got the hell off that bus and we found an empty car to loiter in for the ride.
The rest of the bus ride was pretty uneventful. We crossed into France (France!!!) and I managed to stay awake, glued to the window, because we were in France (France!!!)! We stopped in Lille for a very short while, and then continued on to Brussels. Now was when the trip really began - suddenly we were in a foreign country which spoke different languages, and nobody we knew anywhere nearby. We got off the bus and sat down to figure out where the hell we were in relation to our hostel, and how the bloody hell we were supposed to get there with the godawful directions from the hostel's website.
We headed into the bus depot to try to figure out what was going on. It was busy, and we were directed to a few different places before finally figuring out where we were. We had both taken French in school for the last year, and this was the first opportunity to use it. It had now been about a month since classes ended, during which time I spoke absolutely no French at all. I was minorly terrified that I wouldn't be able to say a single thing and the whole year of studying would be a waste.
So, we attempted to figure out things for ourselves. There were far too many options and no ticketing area. Trying to pay attention to what other people are doing and how they're working the public transportation usually helps, but in this case people just seemed to be wandering around. So I went to the ticket booth to actually speak to a person. In French. So scary. I'm always so afraid I'm going to butcher everything I say, and I feel awful about it, and it makes me very shy when I have to speak another language to anyone. I've been taking Spanish for years and years, I spent time in Mexico speaking only Spanish, but it still makes me nervous. And French was new!
So I walked up to the booth, and completely in French, explained to the ticket man where I needed to go, asked how much two tickets were, and asked how to get there. He sent another guy out with a map to show me, and he explained in colors and numbers which trains to take and how to get there. And I understood it! And he understood me! I can speak French!!
So, excitement over, we got on the train (the right one!), and made our way to the train station. Brussels was a completely new experience after the UK. After spending an hour talking to info booth ladies, we walked out into this awful neighborhood where traffic did not stop at all and people were just running in between cars as they went by. We walked for quite a few miles with our ridiculous backpacks in what I was convinced was the wrong direction. The river was dirty, the streets were dirty, the drivers were crazy, but we were somewhere new, and it was so completely different from what we had seen so far! And I'd spoken French to a real person outside of my class!
After an hour of walking, we finally found the hostel, this giant, super modern brick building called The Meninger.
This place was fantastic. It was more like a hotel, and seemed like something out of an Ikea catalog. The staff was super friendly and spoke more languages than you can imagine. They have a 24 hour bar and laundry, a kitchen, and the rooms are big with en suite bathrooms (which is weird, when you're used to sharing a bathroom with everyone else on your floor). And so fancy! Everything was high-tech and modern and decorated nicely. It was definitely one of my favourite hostels of the trip, and we recommended it to a few people we met later, who were headed to Brussels too. We happily dumped our bags upstairs and headed out again in the fading light (and growing cold!) to explore.
The hostel was situated close enough to the city center that it was a short walk into the main part of town. We decided to just wander. We hadn't originally planned on even stopping here, but flights to Italy were cheaper from here, and it was an easy, straight shot from London, so we decided, why not? I wanted to go everywhere, and I wanted to eat Belgian chocolate and drink Belgian beer, so it seemed like a good choice. The only place I knew I had to go was Delirium, the bar with 2,004 different kinds of beer. Our friend who had been living in Germany for 4+ years told us if we were ever in Brussels, this is where we had to go. So.

and now?

 Le Canal Bruxelles-Charleroi

 street art near the hostel (me gustaba mucho)

(To be continued)