Paris

Hearing about what Paris is like depends on the who is doing the recounting. Some love it and want to call it home for its cultural gravitas or embattled history as a place to be for fashion and prominence, others may describe it as cold and callous, uncaring, or beautiful and majestic. Even a few say it's romantic, or unkind to visitors and inhabitants alike. My opinion: Paris is what you make of it but have zero expectations. It's a city that will mesmerize you with its endless streets lined with mysteries and socializing you desperately want to be included in. It might try to trap you there forever.

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Frantic drivers use horns to push through the chaos, millions in movement at once, a gargantuan traffic, crowded salmon migrating up stream, dodging motorbikes and scooters, from the metro to their rendezvous of the night. Markets branch off the main avenues and boulevards, luring you away from your route with fine cheeses behind glass cases, fruits or fresh oysters displayed on piles of ice, up for offer accompanied with wine, all set onto red and white checkered tables between the stalls. Each way you look, a sidewalk café, bustling at night or mid-day with Parisians smoking cigarettes over an aperitif or coffee with small bites to eat. It is more than a place rumored to be blossoming with romance, strolling across statue lined bridges lit in the night, reflecting on the Siene, littered with lovers' locks and the old man playing an accordion or two.

 "But Paris was a very old city and we were young and nothing was simple there, not even poverty, nor sudden money, nor the moonlight, nor right and wrong nor the breathing of someone who lay beside you in the moonlight." - A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemmingway.

Paris forced me to look inward, the wealth and waste on grandiose display with ancient monuments adorned in gold and marvelous buildings juxtaposed next to the poverty of beggars asking for handouts, smelling of neglect, despair and un-showered stink. Those with nothing living between those with everything. This is not unique to Paris, but it takes on a unique display here where life's realities confronted me head on while having the greatest plethora of distractions allowing for escape.

Here is the view from my cute little green room overlooking the city with a view of the Eiffel Tower which lights up at night past Montparnasse. Thanks to Dan and Mila who have put me up twice for quite some time. They're generous lovely people that made my experience so wonderful.

I would stroll through Jardin de Luxembourg, listen to two men play Sydney Bichet songs on the clarinet and piano on bridge near Notre Dame while waiting for my friend Camille from San Diego. The beauty of Saint-Chapelle stained glass windows is unparalleled. Passing over a young brass band playing for a happy crowd underneath Pont Neuf made one of my first impressions.

On a Sunday afternoon, I would go walking along the Siene, do a quick yoga pose in front of the Eiffel Tower. In start of March, pink blossoms on trees mark the beginning of Spring and daffodils are everywhere sprouting from the ground through the grass. I was also able to meet many other friends while visiting. Moroccan tea with Myriam at the Grande Mosque or a night out with Kevin and Alex, two fellow volunteers from my time at a Vedic Temple in Bavaria.

 

The Louvre and Centre Pompidou.

One cannot beat the cliche of sitting at Les Deux Magots, while reading a book by Hemingway (in said book he writes about writing at this cafe). Having a terrace beer at Montparnasse.

Wednesday, March 1 was a rainy morning passing through the Monmarte neighborhood. It was also Ash Wednesday, a large choir was singing in the Sacré-Cœur cathedral. Later that day I had a four course lunch at Abri with Soraya. One of the best meals I've ever had! Great converstation and delicious.

That night I went to Belleville neighborhood to meet Vincent, a friend of a friend. There we stumbled upon a laundromat where many people with drinks and instruments were gathering inside. This place was across the street from a place where I ate a potato and cheese crepe. I watched in awe as the people disspersed from this underground social event. I wish I had been invited. Laundry and a live band with booze sounds like the perfect end to a Wednesday night in Paris.

I went Versailles, which I would say was nice but doesn't get much of an elaboration from me here. My favorite museum was the Musée d'Orsay. I was able to meet more friends of friends to play some billiards. You can't top a Sunday brunch of oysters (best oysters I've had) and champagne. The best falafel in Paris (maybe the best in Europe, I've never had better) is in Les Marais, called L'as du Falafel. Go there. Eat a falafel. Don't miss it.

I could go on and on. There are so many great places to grab a bite to eat or a drink or stroll. If you want to know more, just ask me sometime!

I was able to sense a feeling of tragic loneliness soaked into the core of this city, mixing turbulently with the hope and dreams it inspires the world over. People often conjure the idea of Paris as a city of love, a city of lights, strolling hand in hand and kiss as the French do. To wander alone in these streets, to be forsaken to a lonely abandonment for a night in Paris, is chilling and harsh. The nights are quiet, desolate, with very little activity going on over the majority of the city past midnight. Finding company is more out of necessity to escape the fear of confronting your own insecurities. Perhaps its more the driving force of coupling here than desire for another? 

Overall, I really really enjoyed my time in Paris. It is beautiful and the people here are wonderful. It is a place like no other. Truly magnificent. Thank you to everyone that helped make my Paris experiences so magical.

København, Denmark

It took about three hours before I felt right at home among the Danes, in the happiest country on earth* (in 2016). København (Copenhagen in English) is the capital of Denmark, a piece of Scandinavia just north of Germany. Walking along the clean, upscale looking streets, my first impression was not of a country that flaunts wealth and luxury on the surface. People don't walk down one of the most expensive streets in the world dripping in jewels and fur coats. They are much too modest to outwardly display having one of the highest standards of living in the world, but ask a local and they'll eagerly tell you about how great things are. Healthcare, unemployment, education all provided by the government and there if you need it. (and at a tax rate not so different from that of the United States) 

The capital seems relatively small but in my experience cannot be properly experienced in just a few days. About 9 days revealed a Copenhagen as a labyrinth for pleasing the senses made up of basement hipster dive bars, world class restaurants and a concentrated grouping of cultural arts in a variety that is impressive.

In KBH, the bars don't close until the last person leaves. That could be at 5 am or 9 am. The weekends are a sight to see with people flocking to the nightlife in boisterous groups. After a night of partying, the patrons that have abandoned the bars stumble down the streets, wandering and playing their own music on portable speakers, outside a 7-11 perchance (yes they have those in Denmark) at 6 in the morning. You can make your own party whereever you feel like it as long as you are respectful to the sleeping neighbors.

The Moose, Copenhagen

The Moose, Copenhagen

Most of the bars in Copenhagen allow smoking inside. While the tobacco smoke is overpowering and suffocating, I stuck it out and enjoyed such lovely high class establishments such as Bo-Bi Bar and The Moose. Here, the term high class is used ironically, but sometimes you just need a comfortable yet grimy night out.

At the international street food market, there is a bar with a shimmering gigantic cow statue decorated in a reflective mosaic tiles, resembling a bovine disco ball. The genius that invented Discow Bar is a legend of a human. I worship this concept. Well done to you. I'm jealous I didn't think of it first. I encourage those wannabe entrepenuers around the world to establish their very own Discow Bar in their home city. Who wouldn't be on board with that?

Discow Bar

Discow Bar

There is really something for everyone here, whether you are a Norwegian farmer escaping the high price of alcohol in your home country or a tourist curious about Christiania, a rather famous district that is almost like a tiny country within a city. The law there does not extend beyond the boundaries of this privately owned, collectively governed slice of Woodstock in village form. What a concept! "You Are Now Leaving the E.U." 

The local authorities tried to kick the hippies off the land once operated by the military by setting a selling price to privatize the land thinking the squatters wouldn't be able to raise the funds themselves. It took them all about two hours to come up with the funds required to buy it outright through online donations. It is now forever a beloved alternate reality that exists in harmony within a bustling modern city. Perhaps direct democracy keeps things going in this neighborhood that sells alternative smoking materials and offers a refuge from the outside world of oppressive capitalism and policies criminalizing the green things that Freetown Christianians love so dearly. It is not a clean place, but it certainly is a fascinating thing to visit. (there were no photos allowed)

A view from inside Christiania (no photos allowed)

A view from inside Christiania (no photos allowed)

Some of my favorite moments in Copenhagen involved walking through the parks in the rain. After becoming too wet, I would head to a cafe to do some reading or writing. My favorite spot is the Paludan Bogcafe (book-cafe).  In Paludan, books line the walls and the atmosphere is perfect for inspiring creativity.

The entire city is dotted with hidden gems and good vibes. The energy of København inhabitants comes off as a comfortable and hyper awareness of the state of the world beyond, yet also having the ability to relax, sip a beer, and light a cigarette without worrying how late it is, or if work in the morning is fast approaching, merely enjoying the hygge (something nice, cozy, safe and known) and intellectual conversation.

Late one evening in the nippy winter wind, as I was walking along, I observed a staff chef that worked at NOMA (once awarded the title of best restaurant in the world) biking in a short sleeve white shirt, no jacket, holding a tree branch more massive than his bike in one hand and balancing with the other. He was returning to the restaurant after scavenging for this hunk of a tree, an ingredient for dinner no doubt. To eat here requires a lot of money and a reservation many months in advance. I wasn't able to eat there this time, but it's on my bucket list!

So many enjoyable days here and it was hard not to enjoy the city no matter the weather. On one of my last days, I visited the inside of Rosenborg Castle, strolled through botanical gardens and read for a bit in the Palm House, an enclosed white painted metal greenhouse. For lunch I devoured smørrebrød (Danish open faced sandwich) from Torvehalle, a public market of specialty food stands and restaurants. 

I can recommend a visit to Copenhagen and stay for a while, get comfortable with some hygge and try to discover the local side of things. The underside of the city is just as captivating as its tourist attractions and grand palaces, my heart was made happy by all the bicycles and gardens and happy people. 

 

Amsterdam, Netherlands

When I first arrived, walking along the canals from the central station, I stumbled into the excitement of a Saturday afternoon. The city was bustling with tourists and very alive! People tend to be very excited to be in Amsterdam because of its reputation as a place to party (just a hunch). However, that's not why I felt giddy with joy. In brisk February air, with snow still on the ground, I smiled a big toothy grin: I made it to the first destination of my bicycle pilgrimage. A holy site for all things bicycle related:

A M S T E R D A M !

The capital of the Netherlands is an ancient city on the sea which has since been retrofitted with a modern transportation network attracting bicycle enthusiasts the world over to pay homage, and appreciate an urban culture that puts the bike as king above all other modes. I like to joke and say that the bicycle is my spirit animal, and yes I am knowingly and intentionally being dramatic. But with good reason! For me, bikes represent a simpler, cleaner, healthier way of life. Amsterdam boasts having more bicycles than cars: 800,000 to 260,000! This is a kind of transportation future I believe in and want to see it happen in more places around the world. It’s entirely possible, all it takes the will power to make the change.

There is something very attractive about the canals spreading across the city like a web, under bridges and linking everything to the water. Rightfully named the Venice of the North because it has more kilometers of canals than Venice, with over 100 km of canals and 1,500 bridges. It's an entire water network that was once used by sea faring merchants to load and unload goods right to your door or warehouse. During my stay, I found myself constantly wandering, admiring the beauty of the stone buildings and drawbridges, with boats passing by. It’s a hypnotizing beauty that doesn’t seem real at times. On the opposite side of it’s partying reputation (where visitors come to try things that might not be legal in their home country) I enjoyed the museums immensely. I went to the Van Gogh Museum, Rijksmuseum and saw a Banksy/Dali exhibition.

On strolls through Vogel Park, I admired the daffodils and crocuses peaking up through the snow, the first blooms of the year and afterwards devouring pickled herring sandwiches for lunch from the street market with Stroopwafel for dessert. What a marvelous place.

This period in my travels, was a period of profound reflection and personal growth. Most of it had to do with the fact that I was on my own for the first time since Lisbon, Portugal. Perhaps I am not unique in wanting an escape, a break from all the distractions of everyday life: social media, work, friends etc. About a year ago, I realized I didn’t make time for myself (just me). What I did was avoid being alone with myself and my thoughts. Rarely, if ever, did I just sit in a room in silence, allowing any thoughts or emotions that bubbled up to flow freely. That was too terrifying. So, I became determined to figure out why the thought of being alone was so discomforting. I wanted to understand this feeling I ran away from exactly because it was scary and unknown. Here is an important distinction. I always occupied nearly every moment of my time just to avoid being alone with my thoughts, not because I got lonely or missed people or don’t like being on my own, but because sitting with my thoughts felt like sitting in a hot tub while wearing a parka.

I set out to fix this in November of 2015. The goal was to feel comfortable on my own so that I could walk into nature and sit on a rock in peace and enjoy the moment without any gnawing anxiety. After much reflection, therapy, spiritual books, mediation, and hot yoga over a year, I determined that there was clear no cause or origin to this feeling. Perhaps it’s a feeling that just happens in some people. I’m not so sure because as a society, we don’t talk about it very much. The best theory I came up with for how to tackle this, is that I needed a break so that I could spend time with the person that I rarely sat down with to share a cup of coffee, just to enjoy their good company. Me! This break would coincide with a grand adventure to see all the places I’ve never seen before and always dreamed of visiting. I embarked on this trip seeking 'aloneness' and it wasn’t until Amsterdam that it hit me. On the train from Breda it sank in. So there I was on Monday morning in Koffiehuis De Hoek on the west side of town, eating breakfast, getting to know me a little bit better, one day at a time.

Famous pancakes that inspire Beastie Boys lyrics, 19 year old cafe cats and a robust bicycle network all contributed to me getting to know myself and finding comfort in solitude. For that, I am grateful to Amsterdam and they wonderful people I met there.  

Breda, Netherlands

Day 1 - Breda

I was invited by a distant relative to stay with her and her family in Breda, a moderately sized town in Southern Holland that you've probably never heard of (I hadn't either). I felt as though I couldn't pass up this very kind offer as get out of the major cities for a bit. I gleefully imagined being in a single family home with a yard. So different from the pullout couches in multi-story apartments and much more pleasant than the packed/smelly hostel rooms that I had not yet become accustomed to. My cousin Andrea had kindly offered to take a few days off work so we could go exploring together, an added incentive to visit! 

So it was decided I would go and on Tuesday evening I took a train from Brussels, arrived at the Breda Central Train Station, nervous to meet the relatives I had never met before. I met Andrea and immediately felt at ease. It must be the shared Finnish blood between us! I met her partner, Joris, and we all stopped at the grocery store before heading home. I marveled at the price scanners used to tally the cost of your cart as you shop. Such genius! You simply hand the cashier the device with your pre-scanned items, pay and away you go. Random checks of your cart keep you accountable. The Dutch have modernized food shopping, take note world! 

Day 2 - Rotterdam

First thing Wednesday morning, Joris drove Andrea and I to a Waterbus pick-up dock in Dordrecht. Our goal was to head down the Nieuwe Maas River to Rotterdam for the day. The water bus ride itself was very enjoyable, the best way to appreciate the massive infrastructure of water works the Dutch have constructed: dams, canals and ships all making a intricate liquid highway system. Sometimes they let sheep roam on the manufactured islands in the channels to keep the vegetation under control. I learned that Finnish people have a word for beer on the go, kassiolut. A freezing rain began to fall in Rotterdam as we crossed over the iconic Erasmusbrug, a suspension bridge built like a sundial. We visited the Netherlands Photomuseum to see an exhibit, "Europe, What Else?" featuring photos, past and present , from all over Europe. Very nice way to see the blend of old and new.

There is a really cool area in downtown Rotterdam we accidentally stumbled upon called Witte de Withstraat. This is hipster central! A complete hipster wonderland with pop-up boutiques selling industrial style lighting next to unusually decorated cafes with stuffed gorillas set as the entrance to youth hostels. Metaphysical thought was stimulated by the single word metal decorations hung from the brick buildings so they hovered over the center of the street. Yes, we eventually found our cafe and sipped on drinks prepared by a barista with a handle bar mustache, a long orange beard and arm sleeve tattoos. What more could you want in a barista?

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When visiting Rotterdam, one must pay homage to the Markthal for yummy local and international food vendors in a very large space across from the Kijk Kubus (yellow cube houses, not practical for use of space but very cool looking). There, we guiltily enjoyed a late afternoon lunch of stroopwaffel and poffertjes with chocolate sauce. Also, when you have the chance for a Heineken in the Netherlands, take it. Heineken is Dutch, in case you didn't know.


Day 3 - Breda Centrum & Kinderdijk

Breda is not a very big place, but just the right size. Its downtown has a vibrant shopping district and beautiful, ancient churches. There's also plentiful street art adorning the tiny passageways off the main streets. Everything is so walkable and cars can't drive in the center of town (what a revolutionary concept!). Andrea and Joris showed me one of their favorite spots, next to the Grote Kerk Breda, called De Bruine Pij (the Brown Pie). After some drinks in the warm cafe, we strolled back to the car and I was introduced to some rare Dutch delicacies. Since Holland had colonized areas in Indonesia, (among other areas) elements south-east Asian cuisine fused with the Dutch frying pan. My stomach thanked me greatly for eating a cheese souffle and a Bamischijf, which is spicy noodles breaded and fried. You can unlock these greasy snacks from walls of glass compartments, putting money into a corresponding slot next to the junk food calling your name. There's something very satisfying about it. You haven't truly lived until you visit a FEBO, and you won't live long if you go there often.

With cheesy fried noodle goodness in our bellies, we took a drive to the iconic UNESCO World Heritage Site of Kinderdijk. Windmills! Walking along the water next to these windmills, some of which are as old as the United States, was a great outing. The stone structures are still home to some people even if they no longer serve their original purpose of pumping the water out of the lower lying areas in Holland to create more area for living and farming. There are modern water pumps for that now. Sounds pretty cool, but it's actually quite muddy! Also, when we were there it was freezing cold. The air and wind were so cold, in order to take pictures I had to unlock my phone's camera by swiping with the tip of my nose to avoid taking my hands out of my gloves. No, I don't have smart gloves that allow me to use my phone. I suggest you invest in those for a winter trip to avoid an unfortunate case of frostbite and smelling your phone unnecessarily.

Day 4 - Camp Vught & N.A.C. Football Match

Yes, Southern Holland is very scenic and quaint, filled with wooden shoes and tulips, but there are some darker moments in the region's past. I'm always one to seek out the variety of a place, the good and the bad. During World War II, the Nazis had set up concentration camps in the Netherlands. Having already been to a few holocaust museums, including the one in Berlin (a must see), I wanted to visit a concentration camp. Joris offered to take me to Camp Vught, a former S.S. operated concentration camp about forty minutes east of Breda by car.

As we arrived, a light, quiet snow fell in the parking lot. My mind could not help think of the tiny snow particles as a terrifying allusion to crematorium ashes as if it were a memory of the place reliving itself. 

A mental institution, sort of prison, currently operates next to the Camp Vught museum. It was slightly ironic, in an uncomfortable way, that vans with armed guards shuttle prisoners to "Justice Institution Vught" through the very same parking lot where visitors make their way to the museum, memorializing a Nazi prison from decades before. Perhaps ironic is not deep enough of a word.

Seeing the camp itself was much different than any holocaust museum or memorial I've seen before. The place itself, the concrete, bricks and dirt hold a darkness. Everything felt stained. It is difficult to imagine what the remaining original structures, even the very ground had seen. I wonder if the trees old enough to have watched what happened here? The fact that there are still living survivors from the camp is proof that it wasn't all that long ago. Sometimes I think we like to push it further into our past than it really is. The barracks remind me of the slave cabins I once stood in at the Destrehan Plantation in Louisiana. Cramped and depressingly simple. Instead of a plantation swamp, sticky and humid, there is a frozen winter fog. My skin burns in the cold if exposed for too long so the snow to make prolonged contact. The camp's watch towers have been recreated, ghosts manifested beyond the icy water filled ditch. Two barbed wire fences stand between me, the ditch and the forest.

This is place is a reminder. A reminder of the capacity humans have for evil. Let us not forget this reminder of what we have done, what we are still capable of doing to each other, to our fellow human beings, when fear and hate take root inside us. We may be capable of doing great evil, but I also know we are capable of profound acts of love and kindness. I'll hold on to that. 

Note: I believe it is important to acknowledge our collective mistakes as humanity, because if we forgot evil acts committed in our past, what is there to prevent similar evils from happening again? The capacity for good and evil is inside each of us. It is our choices and actions that determine whether we ourselves are good or bad. Currently, in the western parts of the world, there is a rising tide of conservative ideologies, increased nationalism with isolationism and a growing fear of the other. It isn't hard to see this global trend and it is important to guard against the possibility that fear and hatred will hijack the logical, more loving parts of ourselves. The alternative is too costly.

So, that might not been uplifting, but I feel it's important to share. For those of you deciding to not read on, don't leave now! There are more highs and lows to come in my time away from The Shire.

The next event in my grand adventure was to attend my first European football match (that's soccer for the North American readers). My host family and I biked across town in a snow storm! That was a magical bicycle trip I won't ever forget. I laughed the entire way! In Breda, they have a rambunctious football club called N.A.C. Also known as the Yellow Army or De Ratten (The Rats). Oh and NAC holds the record for the longest name for a football club in the world. Where the full name expands to Nooit opgeven altijd doorgaan, Aangenaam door vermaak en nuttig door ontspanning, Combinatie Breda. Meaning this: Never give up, always persevere, Pleasant for its entertainment and useful for its relaxation, and the C is for Combination. Pretty cool right?!

The match was a high scoring game where they ended up losing with two goals to their opponents' three (but that was with NAC scoring three goals that were discounted due to offside penalties!) The yellow army fans were out in force. Thousands wore yellow and black scarves and jerseys and chanted rallying cries. The whole stadium erupted in songs every few minutes and there were some moments when one side would call and respond to the other. Flags flew, insults were shouted, and beers were thrown (I'm glad I had a hood on my jacket). An experience I won't ever forget.

Leaving Breda was really hard to do. I felt so at home with Andrea and her family. The kids like Lego Star Wars as much as I did (still do) and dinner at the table each night felt so nurturing for someone constantly on the move. There were so many laughs, good food and the experiences in Breda were something very special. Thank you for everything!!!

As the train pulled away from Breda towards Amsterdam on Saturday afternoon, a very distinct shift was felt. I was no longer going to be staying with friends or family for a few weeks. I was off on my own into a solitude in the Venice of the North. A solitude I welcomed like an old friend I've been waiting to meet after many years. More on that next post.

Brugge & Ghent - Belgium

Brugge, Belgium

I love trains! I confidently know that trains are my favorite form of travel. (Refer to the earlier blog post where I confessed my fear and dislike of flying). I woke up around 8:30 in the morning in Brussels and headed to the train station, Brussels Midi, to catch my first train of the day. I wanted to see Brugge, a popular tourist destination for its canals lined with adorable fairy-tale-esque brick buildings and quaint restaurants serving fish soup. I arrived around noon, excited to see what all the hype was about. In the end, I found Brugge was enjoyable mostly for its aesthetic as it feels like tourism has overtaken the Venice of Belgium. I only spent about an hour and a half in total walking through the entire town, which is not very big, seeing most if not all of the landmarks.

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Prices for meals were dramatically over inflated to take advantage of the constant stream of tourists. Lunch plates of stew for 30 Euros?! Luckily, I found a waffle stand that offered a fluffy snack with sugar in the batter and powdered sugar on top for a cheap price. I figured I could snack more later. Many faux-museums lined the streets, like a torture museum. These sort of things seem like tourist traps to me, not offering anything worth the cost, but hey, if you like seeing how medieval criminals were disemboweled, then go for it! Just not for me. So I continued to stroll through the ancient streets, appreciating the architecture while locals on bicycles angrily rang their bells to get photo happy tourists acting like road blocks to move out of the way. I'm very glad I decided against spending a few nights here. Great spot for a beautiful walk while the weather was gorgeous, maybe not the best place to stay in a hostel. A sunny February day in Belgium is a rare thing I thoroughly enjoyed. On to the next stop!

Ghent, Belgium

JanVan Eyck's Ghent Altarpiece

JanVan Eyck's Ghent Altarpiece

I made it back to the train station in Brugge around 1:30 and made it to my next destination only thirty minutes later with plenty daylight left to see all that I came for. The energy of Ghent was noticeably and immediately different. It felt like a trendy college town, with young people heading in every direction and plenty of locals not outnumbered by visitors. I soaked it all in and boarded a tram, I was on a mission to see the famous Ghent Altarpiece (a.k.a Adoration of the Mystic Lamb) painted by Jan Van Eyck and housed in the Sint-Baafskathedraal. Because Art History was my favorite subject high school (thanks Mr. Nascimento!) I have made a few journeys during my travels in Europe seeking out some notable works of art. I was not disappointed with seeing the Ghent Altarpiece!

The feeling I had in Ghent was light, the atmosphere was electric and exciting. There were also canals! (Take that Brugge!) This place was dynamic, it had medieval castles near modern and older shopping centers. There are strange coffee shops like Mokabon and passageways devoted to graffiti. The contrast between old and new is something I thrive off of and Ghent made me so happy, with the balance between the two.

graffiti street

graffiti street

The Korenmarkt was a bustling square with bikes darting in front of trams as a  spectacle for the people sitting out on restaurant terraces having beers. It felt like everyone collectively was embracing Friday evening, welcoming the weekend, and enjoying themselves with food and drink. I giggled at the man producing a flurry of bubbles from ropes soaked in soapy water, entertaining the tourists. Can you imagine a life as someone that makes bubbles in a public square for a living? A mythic existence. After a cappuccino at Mokabon, I wandered down the graffiti street before I found a cozy Bierhuis (I highly recommend) to grab some beers. It was on the main canal that cradled the center of Ghent and had the perfect interior, called Het Waterhuis aan de Bierkant.

There, I overheard conversations of German visitors mingling with a boisterous group of British blokes. Trump and Brexit were the topics of conversation. I sipped my Kriek Boon (cherry beer) and smiled to myself, content not to get involved. They described and all agreed to a perceived disaster in America while the British asserted their recent vote as an act of independence. Once finished with my beers, I decided to head back to Brussels but not before a quick detour on my way to the tram. Darkness revealed a different beauty, lights reflecting off the water to make the landscape sparkle. I resisted my temptation to get yet another waffle or some frites. Made it back to Brussels in about a half an hour, meeting my hosts around 8 in the evening, just in time for dinner. If I could do it over again, I would skip Brugge and spend the entire day in Ghent. I am craving to return to have another taste of all that Ghent showed me during such a brief visit.

Ghent, Belgium - Photo Gallery

Brussels, Belgium

February 1-6
I will admit that the reason I was so excited to visit Belgium was not for its grand architecture or history, not even to see the capital of Europe. I have been dreaming about the simple things Belgians have to offer, I lusted after waffles, frites (fries) and beer!

I was not disappointed at all in my quest for Trappist monastery creations and fried doughy goodness. In fact, I was blown away by the waffles and frites acquired on the streets. Oh and the beers... the beers are really good! Maybe the best I've ever had. Those Belgian monks have learned a few amazing things from continuously brewing beer since the twelfth century. That's something I can't do a great job conveying through a blog except to say: you have to go. If you enjoy beers and fried food, this is a place you must visit. Go and experience the thousands of beers available, all at the highest quality and good prices, afterwards stumble or saunter our of the drinking establishment to the nearest frites shop or late night waffle stand. It's perfection. When you're in Brussels, do as the Belgians do!

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First thing I did was head to find some frites from one from a highly rated stand. These fries are fried twice and come with a variety of sauces (I went with Andalouse as it is apparently a local favorite). Not a few hours after my train arrived in Brussels, Val, my gracious host, arranged for us to meet his friends at a local bar called Stam. It was a fantastic start to my stay because 4 different beers were ordered for me after much discussion among the locals about which ones I should try.

Previously, when I had mentioned that I was going to visit Brussels, some people mentioned that Belgium is mocked because it's sort of a hybrid combination of cultures that isn't entirely Flemish (Dutch) and not completely French. My experience showed me a country diverse and caught between two cultures, blending into a unique fusion of both. Brussels is officially a bilingual city, signs are both in Flemish and French. The Brussels inhabitants are from all over Europe, likely working for various governmental entities of the European Union. Beyond that, it is diverse with cultures beyond the continent. Walking along the street I could hear many different languages. The energy is of a vibrant, eclectic place. It may not be a top destination for weather, but they have lots of politics and chocolate too. What more do you need?

Now, while I wasn't especially excited about the architecture or history beforehand, after my first full day, I was blown away. My former colleague connected me with their cousin living outside the city. We sped away first thing in the morning in her tiny brown Mini Cooper to first see Atomium, a futuristic structure built in 1959, before cutting through the countryside to Waterloo. No, not Waterloo, Iowa, THE Waterloo. The site where the great Napoleon Bonaparte, emperor of France was finally defeated in battle to usher in a relatively long era of European peace (the Concert of Europe) from 1815 until the Crimean War of 1853. It was quite a sight to see the gigantic mound of earth taken from the battlefield. To me it represents our willingness to admit that our societies are fragile, and our freedoms are continuously lost and hard won. Tyranny is always lurking around the corner, "The history book on the shelf is always repeating itself. Waterloo knowing my fate is to be with you, Waterloo finally facing my Waterloo." -ABBA. Yes, that song was stuck in my head for two days on endless repeat. I've linked it here for your easy viewing convenience.

The Monument at the site of the Battle of Waterloo

The Monument at the site of the Battle of Waterloo

I really appreciated my trip into the countryside. Thanks Diane! In the evening, one of Val's friends arranged to show me the center of Brussels. That's when I had my first waffle (1 of 4) with warm chocolate inside. A stroll through the streets lined with restaurants and bars, filled with people out enjoying their Thursday night. It was this night I first laid eyes upon the magical spot that is Grand Place of Brussels while I enjoyed waffle number two (Caramel and Cream). my mouth dropped open as I walked into this square, lit up light a dream, each building adorned in statues and gold. It is so impressive, I can't believe something like it actually exists.

Grand Place of Brussels at night

Grand Place of Brussels at night

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Brussels is a special place that I enjoyed visiting immensely! Thank you Val, Thibauld and Yanni for your generous hospitality! I felt very at home. The capital of Europe has made its home in fun and unusual place. A city that features multiple statues of peeing children (see the photo gallery) and where it's perfectly acceptable to pee on the side of a church, this one to be specific. You can buy clothing at a second hand store based only on the price per kilogram but you can't get Brussels Sprouts (I know, I thought it would be a thing, but apparently it isn't). I was so determined to eat those little green cabbages so I cooked some myself. Luckily I could find them in the supermarket!

The oddities of this place are endless, even the fact that the European Parliament's address is 60 Rue Wiertz. Who is Wiertz? Well he was a not-so-famous, neglected artist who created dark, demented paintings and somehow, quite miraculously managed to convince the government of Belgium to subsidize his studio and keep his art open to the public for free in perpetuity. I'm impressed, this man missed his calling in life to be a negotiator. Thus, you can wave to the members of the European Parliament at their desks from the Wiertz Museum just across the street. He painted some really dark stuff, like babies being cooked in a pot over the fireplace. I'm not making this stuff up. The most shocking thing, he had envisioned Brussels becoming the "capital of Europe". He wrote that in 1839. There you have it Europe, your selection in capital cities was foreshadowed by a demented Belgian painter in the 17th century, albeit he was a skillful negotiator.

Until next time Brussels! I'll always have dreams of your waffles in my heart!

Brussels Photo Gallery: