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)

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