Saturday, September 26, 2009
We finally made good on our promise of getting a phone today. We went to the city center where we picked up our (or more accurately Victor’s) phone and bought a new Belgian SIM card. We also took some time to see a few things that we had missed seeing on previous journeys like Mannequin Pis and a really awesome outdoor flea market that happens everyday in a large square. The flea market was really a proper flea market with a large amount of wares that, to anyone but a skilled treasure hunter, resembled junk, and were laid on rugs or simply left them in boxes to be rummaged through. We didn’t happen to have any cash which prohibited us from purchasing anything, so we just browsed a bit a left. Around 4:00 we returned to Sarah and Stephan’s place where we had promised to help Sarah take a bunch of clothes to a charity shop(thrift store). Until this point we had not had much luck with what the Europeans call charity shops. We’ve only encountered overpriced quasi-retro stores or small stores heaped with unsorted junk that’s been mixed with what can literally be called trash. Here, mixed into used household items, empty appliance boxes and bits of broken bric-a-brac are commonly displayed in these shams. Anyway, Sarah had an entire compact car’s worth of clothes to take to the charity shop which left very little room for it’s three passengers. Once we arrived we visited the retro shop first, a similar deal to Rag-o, and then went to the charity shop; both places being in the same block and part of the same organization. The clothes section was pretty mediocre in comparison to American thrift shops, but the rest was a three store deal that was crammed full of treasures. Unfortunately the place was closing, but we vowed to return the next day. That night we decided to make Mexican food for Sarah, Stephan, and some of their friends. They were very excited about the prospect of spicy food, and the burritos that we made turned out really well and were hailed by all as a success. The night was finished out with the left over beer from the night before and more great discussions about music, movies, and culture.
Today we left one host’s place for another's. Actually, it was the host that we missed staying with when we arrived due to the fact that we didn’t have a cell phone. We of course got a very late - early afternoon start - to travel what we thought, due to us getting so lost trying to find the place, would be a rather long journey back towards the city center. It turned out to be less than four miles and three turns away…we laughed a little at how silly we had been for getting lost so terribly. After doing some sightseeing on the way, we arrived to meet Sarah and Stephan. They offered us dinner and took us to get some famous Belgian beers for dinner and Belgian fries for a snack. We of course almost immediately asked about thrift stores, and it turned our that Sarah also has a passion for thrift stores and promised to take us to a really good one. The beer store that she took us to while Stephan made a Rockfort cheese cream sauce for pasta (which was delicious!) had over 400 different beers from Belgium to choose from. Needless to say we took a while deciding and ended up being rushed by the owner who wanted to close his shop for the night. Armed with a deadly arsenal of strong Belgian beers, we returned to eat dinner. Sarah and Stephan were fascinated to hear about our backward society and how mass ignorance has created resistance in America to improving our lives with ideas that viewed as simply humanity in their country. This topic has been a common theme among all our hosts, and it is somewhat embarrassing to have to try to explain how and why some people oppose ensuring that everyone is afforded basic human rights, but it seems to be a duty while traveling to ensure the rightfully confused onlookers that not everyone thinks that way and that we want it to change. We also talked about movies and music and exchanged a long list of movies with each other that we thought we should see; also the beers were really good. In short we had a great time.
Friday, September 4, 2009
Today we decided to venture into the city to see the Margritte Museum. Margritte was a Belgian surrealist and this museum boasted the largest collection of his work. Also it was brand new, only two months old, and we were informed by the Canadian traveler that we met on our first day in Brussels that it was pretty exceptional. We contemplated how we would get to the city while watching the morning drizzle and while still feeling pretty tired and after being warned by our hosts about the distance to the city center and with the long confusing ride out to our hosts place still fresh on our minds. We soon decided to checkout the city’s train system that day. We required a lot of help from a girl who spoke a little English but was able to explain to the ticket counter in French that we wanted two round-trip tickets. In all actuality we could have figured out the system ourselves but were just lacking the confidence to do so. The trains are uncannily similar to the trains in any American city. Our only regret is that after buying our tickets, we found out that the whole network runs on the honor system and we easily could have walked onto the train just as easy with or without a ticket. After our legitimate ride on the train, we had some time so we walked around the city, through a nice park which was having a concert and where a carnival had just ended, and we saw the Royal Palace. The Margritte museum was very interesting and fun. There was a lot of work with supplemental quotes by the artist and guides that were showing people around who we joined briefly but who only seemed to by intentionally creating mystery about Margritte and his work. It was very interesting to piece together a personality, whether accurate or not, for Margritte through his quotes, his work, and some videos that were displayed. After Margritte we went in search of some other land marks that were marked on a map that we obtained from the hostel where our Canadian acquaintance was staying that had a bunch of both touristy and locally acclaimed landmarks. Our first stop was a postcard shop that had a lot of very old and very interesting postcards. The selection turned out to be a little too big, and because there was so much, no purchases were made. We then went on a hunt for Bulgian fries since we were hungry. We bought a few beers and found a fry shop - also on the map. They were pretty good; definitely different from the fries in America. We didn’t know it yet, but we later discovered that French fries was a misnomer and much to the annoyance of some Belgians for it was in Belgium from where fries originate. The other difference is that they have many, many different sauces, and yes, mayonnaise is one of them. After fries, we decided to make our search for a store to unlock our cell phone so that we could get a Belgian SIM card our main priority. Throughout the day it had been passively sought as we walked around the city, but with it beginning to become dinner time and because we hadn’t left a note at Alex and Katarzyna’s expressing our intentions for dinner, we wanted to make sure were back at a decent time to dine with them since we had decided to move closer to the city center and stay with the hosts that we had tried to stay with on Sunday. We also didn’t want to wear out our welcome and had discovered that we were actually the first people that Katarzyna and Alex had hosted. After just about giving up and heading back to the station, we finally found a shady enough cellphone purveyor to unlock our phone! It would cost 10 Euro, and we had to leave it over night, but since we couldn’t use it as it was that was not a problem. After offering to make dinner and settling on just providing the salad since we had to buy a new tube at the store anyway, we had another nice dinner with our hosts. It turns out that both of our all our extra tubes had slow leaks since we‘ve had to patch them all at this point in order to repair the four flat tires that Alyssa has had up until now, and as a form of rather blunt foreshadowing, let me tell you that she is not finished with those poor tubes yet either! After eating and drinking more of the vodka for which our hosts could not help but noticing our fondness, we - yes, a little drunkenly(sorry Mom) - went to bed.
Today we lounged around because of the trip we had the last two days. I was very tired and sore and didn’t feel like doing much of anything. We ventured out to the nearest grocery store to get food, but that’s about all we did. David made pancakes and then after eating I took a nap for most of the afternoon. It should be mentioned that we ate pancakes with ice cream for what was actually a very late breakfast. It was delicious and we felt a little guilty. Also it turns out that while I napped, David changed my tire. We also bought a new tire at the store which was kind of like a mini Walmart. When Alex got back he took us to the shopping mall to look for cell phones, and he helped interpret for us since most people spoke French. That evening when Katarzyna came back from work she made us a delicious dinner. Also, we were able to try a Polish vodka that was very good. She is from Poland and often goes back to visit family and to bring back Polish alcohol and other Polish goodies! The vodka alone may be the sole motivation for us to include a trip to Poland in our itinerary.
Today we found our way into Brussels and to the Grand Plaza but not without David falling off his bike! There are tram trains here and the wheel of the trailer got stuck in the track. Poor David ate it but no worries, hes alright! His bike did however suffer some scrapes that he was not happy about, but the only thing that was really hurt was his pride. After spending some time in the city center we made our way to the first place we were supposed to stay. At this point we still didn’t have a phone to get in touch with our hosts, we would just show up and a certain time determined by email. We were at Sarah’s house and no one was answering the door! We went around the corner to find a payphone and there was no answer. After awhile, we contacted the host we were supposed to stay with the night before, Katarzina, and asked if we could stay with them. She said we could so we got some delicious pita’s to go and ate in the park with some Belgian beer of course. We didn’t think Katarzina’s house was too far away so we weren’t concerned with leaving right away but of course we got lost on the way there and a twenty minute ride turned into two and a half hours. It was super late when we finally arrived at their house and we were really lucky that Katarzina and her fiance, Alex, were still awake. Actually David had forgotten her last name so we weren’t even sure of which button to ring for them to buzz us in. They heard us talking from their flat and came to let us in. We felt super super bad that we were so late and weren’t able to call when we got lost. It was impossible to find anyone to give us good directions to their house or even to a phone. Once they let us in we apologized and talked for a little bit before bed. It was decided that night we’re getting a phone!
Tuesday, August 25, 2009
We left Lille on Saturday for Brussels. By all accounts the road would be nice, scenic, pleasant, and FLAT. Guess which one wasn’t true? Maybe we let all the promises of reaching Brussels go to our heads a little too much or maybe we are just creatures of habit and our habit happens to be procrastination, either way we left Lille rather late - 2:30 in the afternoon to be precise. We started off making good time and made it to Tournai, where we had to pass through the city center, at about 4:00. Unfortunately their happened to be an impressively decrepit cathedral and a parade so we quickly became thoroughly distracted. Around 5:00 or more likely 5:30 we decided that we ought to leave town since Brussels was still quite a ways east. In fact much further east than we assumed. After leaving Tournai, we immediately discovered which description of the road to Brussels was not true; it was not flat. The first hill was over a mile long and included a section that was marked on the map that designates a grade greater than 6%. There were four more marked ascents along the way and the road was not ideal for climbing. It was often very bumpy causing us to have to make even more of an effort in order to ascend each hill. Alyssa, with here new pannier, was now forced to join me on the ascents and no longer got to wait for me at the top as I crawled up the hill. We struggled on until the odometer read 725 which means that by google map’s estimation we only had five miles to go. I thought that this was a pretty decent estimation, but a missed turn and the windiness of the roads through towns actually added quite a bit of extra miles between Brussels and us. The trip was supposed to be 55 miles, but at 65 miles into the day, we were a good way out from Brussels on our map, and it was already a pretty dimly lit 9:45. We were actually in Gooik which turned out to be about 15 miles outside of Brussels; however, it was too dark to continue safely. We decided that we could go no further. Having rode most of the day in Belgium already, we noticed a few things about the landscape: it was much greener; much less agriculture was taking place; and most importantly for our current situation, it was much more densely populated. In France, the countryside was often times entirely un-inhabited; there were only fields and forests which was great for finding a camp site. Belgium had many more towns, much closer together, and the often just blended into one another. We were pretty sure that there was not going to be any isolated forests for camping especially with our proximity to Brussels. After scouting the area for some indicator of a hotel, I headed to a bar to ask for help. On the way over, an older man turned the corner who I asked if he spoke any English. He happened to speak a little which turned out to be more than enough to tell me that there was a hotel that was very nice, which I instantly equated with expensive, and I asked for a cheaper option or a place to camp. He asked if I had a tent and then offered a large grassy area right next to the grocery store that he worked in front of which we happened to be standing! I said that we would take it, I ran to tell a tired Alyssa the good news, and he showed us where he was talking about. He asked if we needed food or water, and after we assured him that we were fine, he insisted that we take some pastries. They were slightly flaky, filled with crème, topped with thick dark chocolate, and were pretty delicious. We set up our tent behind a small row of bushes, devoured the extra pizza from the night before and the pastries, and then watched sixteen or so UFOs ascend from the trees off in the distance, hover for a few minutes, and slowly fade into the clouds. Alyssa later saw some stars moving about in an odd manner, and then we snuggled into the tent to escape the cold and quickly fell asleep.
Today was another day of recovery for us. We were tired and didn’t feel like doing much. Our hosts were very understanding and allowed us to stay in their house, work on the bikes, and eat a bunch of food. Biking makes me insatiably hungry. Rest days usually involve me eating tons and tons of food. However, the trailer is becoming much “lighter” and easier for me to pull. It’s still slow going on some hills, but they don’t wear me out at all like they did toward the start of the trip. One of our hosts, Gilliam (Sorry if I spell this wrong; please feel free to tell me if I do.), has done many cycling trips around Europe, has an extensive collection of bikes and parts, much of which he has found in a similar manner to tree lawn picking, and offered to let us have a rack to put on Alyssa’s bike. Not only that he also gave us his old set of panniers which was actually only one pannier since the other on was turned into a campfire by someone when the bike was locked on the street overnight. It was incredibly nice of him to let us have them, and despite many offers of some form of compensation which were continuously refused by him, we lamely, despite it being good and French, left him and his housemates some beer as at least some form of payment for being such great hosts. Later on in the evening Alyssa and I made pizza with the ingredients that we bought earlier that day. We over estimated how much cheese, flour, and veggies we would need so two pizzas turned into four quite to the amusement of our hosts. There WAS a lot of pizza! After the pizza and some conversation, we all went to bed since everyone had to be up early-ish to leave the next morning.