From Brussels to Oxford

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Our return ferry ride from Belgium to the UK couldn't have been more different from our outgoing ferry ride there.  For starters, leaving in the morning and spending the day traveling is infinitely more enjoyable than making the journey overnight.  Secondly, well...... no -- I think not traveling overnight made all the difference.

We woke up early(ish) Sunday morning, sure that one hour would be enough time to pack up our laundry and go.  Let's just say this plan was.....optimistic at best.  Sometimes when we're hurrying to catch a bus or train or plane, Joe (our official packing coordinator) will wait until the last 10 minutes to start packing and Sunday morning was one of those times.  

I refrained from holding any grudges, however, seeing as how I know a thing or two about procrastination myself.  Although, my expertise in waiting-til-the-last-minute-ness is best exercised in academia: putting off tasks like writing moot court briefs, and drafting mock Supreme Court opinions, and writing moot court briefs.... and did I mention writing moot court briefs?  But that is beside the point. 

I stood in the bedroom doorway as Joe frantically packed, offering helpful reminders like, "Come on, Joe!  You've got 12 minutes!" and "8 minutes left, you can do it!"

Side note: If you're wondering why I wasn't packing, it's because -- like I said -- Joe is the packing coordinator.  There are no ifs ands or buts about it; it physically pains him if things aren't packed just so.  He treats it as a game of Tetris, which I'm cool with.  I prefer to play Tetris on the 1989 gray model of the Gameboy, anyway.

By the time our backpacks and sack lunches were packed, we had to sprint from Christie's house to the metro.  Have you ever sprinted through a major European city (or any city, really) wearing an oversized backpack?  It's kind of the worst.  Although I was spared of the duty this time around (Joe wears the backpack in our relationship), I'm no stranger to the soreness that ensues 2-3 days later, and I can attest to the fact that it's no fun.

Thankfully, Christie was sprinting right alongside us, for she had graciously offered to accompany us to the train station to make sure we found the Eurolines desk in time.  Once we arrived at the metro station, which would take us to the train station, I expected to pause at the ticket machine to buy our metro tickets, even though we had no time for pausing if we wanted to catch our bus.  Sure enough, as I slowed down at the ticket machine, Christie called back to us, "There isn't time for tickets, just get on the metro without them!"

I cannot adequately articulate how much anxiety this caused me, but anyone who has ever lived in Austria or Germany needn't me go any further.

For the sake of anyone who has not lived in Austria or Germany, I will attempt to explain: there is no crime more offensive to Austrians or Germans than the act of schwarzfahring (riding without a ticket).  Surely on the books, the official law states otherwise, but if you've ever lived there, you know the truth.  Thus, when the non-uniformed Verkehrs Polizei step aboard, wait for the bus or metro doors to close, and then reveal their non-civilian identities as they bark "Fahrschein, bitte" or "Fahrkarten, bitte", marching from seat to seat and demanding to see tickets, it's nearly impossible not to feel a wave of panic wash over you, even if you know that your ticket or bus pass is within reach.  And because I've seen one too many unsuspecting tourists get thrown off a bus and subsequently fined (and lectured in the process), I cannot, for the life of me, schwarzfahr -- in any country -- without fearing arrest or deportation, however irrational or baseless the fear may be.

In other words, when Christie instructed us to schwarzfahr and assured us, "No one ever checks for your tickets on the metro", my eyes became saucers, and I froze in place.  And when the metro rolled in to the station, despite the fact that we had to catch that specific metro or else we would definitely miss our bus to the ferry, it nonetheless rebelled against every fiber of my being to step on board, no ticket in hand.  It was a 10-15 minute ride from the metro stop to the train station, but it felt like 10-15 hours (!!!!) because every single time a well-kept looking man stepped aboard, I turned to Christie and panicked.  "It's happening," I would whisper, shaking her arm violently.  "We're going to get kicked off."  

Each time, she calmly assured me that whomever had just stepped aboard the metro was just a normal Belgian man doing whatever normal Belgian men do on Sunday mornings.  And each time, I believed her..... until the next ordinary-looking Belgian man would step aboard and we'd repeat the whole scenario.  One time, we were mid-conversation when I saw a man at the other end of the metro car walking from seat to seat, bending down to talk to each passenger.  I strained my eyes to see if passengers were showing him a ticket in return.  "Christie!", I all but screamed. "We have to get off!  That man is checking tickets!!!!"  In the process of trying (but ultimately failing) to inconspicuously gather my things in the event that I needed to jump off a moving metro train, I dropped my bkr water bottle and it thudded loudly to the ground before rolling away (Joe picked it up).  Christie turned and calmly explained, "Jennifer, that is a homeless man asking for money.  Calm down."

After that, I did calm down (as much as I could), but I still felt indescribable relief when we pulled into the train station and finally stepped off the metro.

Joe and I quickly hugged Christie goodbye to, ran to the Eurolines desk just beneath/outside the train station (passing a lovely pile of train station vomit on our way), showed our passports, and jumped onto the bus with five whole minutes to spare!  

The bus was nearly empty -- which is always a good sight to behold when you know you are about to be on that bus for the better part of seven hours -- and we took our seats next to an elderly American couple.  The couple asked us some questions about their visas, which I happily answered, being the visa expert that I am.  As we pulled out of Brussels, Joe and I couldn't help but overhear the elderly couple commenting on every. single. quasi-noteworthy thing we passed.  "Look at that billboard!"... "Ohhh, I wonder how you pronounce that word." .... "Did you see that billboard?" .... "Oh my, what an interesting looking sidewalk."  

After a few minutes, Joe turned to me and said, "Are they kidding me right now?  I can't do this.  Let's just swim back to London."  Obviously, he was kidding, but I tried to offer some perspective anyway.  "Joe, that could be us someday.  And hey, at least they're traveling?"  Joe agreed on both accounts but added the afterthought, "Well, if that is us someday, we will at least have the courtesy to tone down the constant stream of unnecessary commentary."  And then he promptly fell asleep.

Eventually the elderly couple fell asleep too, and I enjoyed a quiet and peaceful ride to the border.  We went through the first customs without issue, got our passports stamped, and were herded through the line to second customs.  I asked Joe before we approached the customs agent, "You have all your papers and forms from Oxford, right?"  "Yes," he assured me.  "Of course I have them."  I apologized for doubting him.

We stepped up to the customs desk and the officer greeted us before asking to see our papers and forms verifying our student status.  Joe took a quick look through his bag and then conclusively announced, "I don't have them.  I must have left them at Oxford."  

I smiled at the officer and shrugged, as if I expected him to respond, "Oh well, thanks for trying!  Go on about your day now", and dismiss us.  Instead, he asked us, "Do you have any other forms or papers proving your student status at the University of Oxford?"  Joe looked through his bag once more and then announced, "I have some notes on the English legal system."

"That will not do," the agent heartlessly replied.

Joe remembered that we'd taken a screen shot of all of our .pdf forms before we'd boarded our plane in D.C. and he produced his phone to scroll through the screen-grabs for the agent.  To our surprise and delight, the agent accepted this as satisfactory, despite the fact that the forms bore neither of our names -- a mistake we hadn't noticed until standing before the customs agent.  Miraculously, we were admitted to pass.  Once we re-boarded the bus, and then boarded the ferry, we reveled in our sheer luck, along with the fact that, unlike last time, it was not 4:00 A.M.  

As we made our way into the ferry's dining hall, however, I was overcome with a weird sense of deja vu.  Am I back at Gymnasium Eckental?, I wondered.  Everywhere I looked, there were unruly teenagers swarming about.  German ones, Italian ones, English ones.  And worse, they were all unsupervised.  This made for a very trying 20 minutes, as I stood in line to get our plates of food (we had split up so I could get lunch and Joe could find us a table).  Surrounded by a group of 12-year-old Italian boys, I took deep and measured breaths as they shoved and pushed and teased their way from the start of the line to the buffet. Ten minutes later, having reached the end of my rope, when one of them bumped against me -- rather carelessly and obliviously -- I turned abruptly, narrowed my eyes, and stared deeply into the souls of each one of them.  I felt terrifying and maternal and powerful and downright middle-aged; the pushing and shoving came to a screeching halt and I was able to get my fish and chips and mashed peas and vegetable cornish pastie and beans and potatoes in peace and solitude, just as it should have been.

When I returned to find Joe sitting at the table he'd claimed for us, I proudly set down our trays and told him, "You better appreciate those 2 ketchups -- they cost me 40 pence."

Quick summary on the food: fish and chips were good, everything else was TERRIBLE.  We played Tick and tried to reconcile the fact that we'd just spent, like, 30 GBP on a meal not fit for human consumption. 

By the time we'd reached London, it was raining, and we also had no idea where the Oxford Tube even picked us up.  So we did what any sensible traveler would do: we waited until we saw an Oxford Tube drive by and then chased after it.  Once aboard, we reached 2 important agreements: (1) we should go back to Belgium again someday soon and spend more time with Christie and Mathieu and (2) we should never, ever, ever go there by ferry again.

Our last night in Brussels

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

By the time our last night in Brussels rolled around, Joe and I were too tired to do anything that involved actual physical movement.  Thus, we decided to stay in and enjoy a home-cooked dinner on the patio with Christie and Mathieu.

This meal was Mathieu's idea; he planned and cooked it himself, with Christie's assistance, and he insisted that Joe and I remain completely sedentary on the living room couch in the process, lifting a finger only to occasionally raise a glass of rosé to our lips (maybe the sedentary part was our idea, but he did suggest and provide the rosé).  Even that act proved too labor-intensive for me, though, so instead of drinking the wine, I resorted to simply staring at it on the coffee table from my horizontal couch-position, thinking how nice it would be if  I actually had the energy to reach for the glass.

I'm not even being hyperbolic; in the past 48 hours, Joe and I had walked 2-dozen miles and our bodies were weary and sore, to the point where I honestly considered skipping dinner and just going to bed at 8:30.  

But we were in Brussels!  And we couldn't waste the time sleeping!

So I fought the exhaustion and eventually won; I eventually mustered the willpower to transfer from the couch to the patio and it was well worth the effort.  The meal over which Mathieu and Christie so tirelessly toiled was very good, but truth be told, the highlight for me was..... the frozen Dr. Oetker's pizza Christie made for me as an "appetizer" (per my request).  Dr. Oetker's is a pizza brand available in most European countries and it's -- well, it's a pretty, shall we say, economical dinner option.  In other words, it's comparable to Totino's or Jeno's pizza in the States, except (!) the ingredients in Dr. Oetker pizzas are not proven to cause cancer, which distinguishes them from the aforementioned brands in no uncertain terms.  Although I did recently discover that they sell Dr. Oetkers in select US states, and wouldn't you know, the US ingredients are of the cancer-causing variety, illegal in non-US countries.  Coooooooooool.

Anyway, the fact that I was so delighted by the Dr. Oetker pizza amused Christie to no end -- seeing as she had paid, maybe, like, 3 euro for it.  But I had missed Dr. Oetker so much!  Last time I was living in Europe, I ate it all the time because it was one of the only meals I could afford.  Sometimes it would be the only thing I could afford all day, so I'd starve until dinner and then eat it as slowly as possible so as to savor the floury crust.... 

Those were the days.

Aside from Dr. Oetker, the other highlight of the night occurred just after dinner when I excused myself from the table to hang all of Joe's and my laundry out to dry on the patio.  Christie, Mathieu and Joe were still eating, but I wanted to make sure that our clothes got dry before we left in the morning (we'd done several loads of laundry at Christie's to save money since it costs to launder our clothes at Oxford -- thanks for the free laundry, Christie!).  So I stood beside the dinner table on the patio and carefully hung each article of clothing on the clothes line, adding my two cents to the group's conversation as necessary.  Fifteen minutes later, just as I'd hung the last piece, I resumed my place at the dinner table with a loud, satisfied sigh.  In that moment, Joe pushed his chair back from the dinner table and announced, "Well, I'm gonna go get all our clothes from the washer and hang them out to dry."  Christie and Mathieu stared at him, blankly, as I nudged him.  "Uh, Joe?"  He turned in his chair, visibly stunned to see that the work had been done inches away from the dinner table, unbeknownst to him.  It reminded me of one of my mom's favorite stories that involves me, as a two-year-old, obliviously playing on the floor as she and my sisters assembled and decorated our Christmas tree from top to bottom, only to look up upon their completion and gasp in complete shock and awe.  Not that I'm comparing Joe to a two-year-old or anything.

After dinner, Christie and I sat down to watch TV and I made it approximately 4 whole minutes before unapologetically passing out on the couch.

Speaking of which, I can no longer keep my eyes open as I type this.  So I'll tell you about how we got home from Brussels tomorrow.  Teaser: it involves me almost shoving a group of adolescent Italian boys off of a ferry.

Stay tuned!

The Best Waffles in Belgium (A Day in Bruges)

Monday, September 14, 2015

The night before our trip to Bruges, we went to bed at Christie's intending to take the first morning train out from Brussels!

We woke up intending to take "the one around, oh, like, 10:00 or 11:00?  Maybe?"  

We were very tired.

Mathieu had an early morning bike ride planned with his dad (as I understand, they do this every Saturday), so he opted out of our trip.  When I realized this, I said, "Oh, we can wait to leave until after you get back!  Should we wait until lunchtime and go?"  And then he told me his bike ride lasts, like, nine hours.

And that's how me, Joe, and Christie went to Bruges for the day, just the three of us!

During our train ride, Joe inadvertently won Christie over by patiently listening to the two of us catch up on Oklahoma gossip, and not getting a word in edgewise, all the way from Brussels to Ghent.  By the time we made it to Bruges, Joe had earned Christie's official stamp of approval, which felt especially nice since we are already married.  

Side note: I did worry, though, when we stopped in Ghent to change trains, that maybe Christie would revoke her pro-Joe endorsement; we were standing on the train platform and I said, "Did you know every time a train or subway approaches, I have this sudden sick feeling that somebody is going to push me onto the tracks?"  Christie's eyes widened.  "I have that same feeling!", she remarked.  That's when Joe chimed in,  "You know what's funny?  Every time a train or subway approaches, I have this sudden urge to shove someone onto the tracks...."

Important disclaimer: he was joking.

First stop in Bruges: lunch!  We walked around for about half an hour in search of a restaurant or cafe that was (1) outdoor and (2) not 25 euro per plate.  This was surprisingly hard to find, so we had to venture off the beaten path a little bit and away from the Markt.  We finally settled upon a Mexican restaurant, the name of which I can't remember, most likely because it was not good.  So I can't advise you "Steer clear of this Mexican restaurant in Bruges: ______" since I don't know the name, but based on the quality of this "Mexican" food, I think it would be a fair assessment to advise you to steer clear of all Mexican restaurants in Bruges.  Maybe all of Belgium, for that matter.  In fact, based on the Mexican restaurants I've visited in Germany, Poland, England, etc., I would feel more comfortable advising you to steer clear of all Mexican restaurants in Europe.  So just stick to the ones in the U.S., preferably in or around the state of Texas.  

To give you an idea of how 'authentic' this Mexican food really was: as I skimmed over the menu, I said to Christie, "Oh!  They have a 'Dallas burger' here!  Interesting!"  I pointed to the 'burger' section of the menu and she glanced at it, muttering to herself.  "Yes, well, they also have a 'Bollywood burger', so....."

See what I mean?  Authentic.

Also, as to why any Mexican restaurant's menu needs a 'burger' section at all is beyond me.

Lunch itself was relatively uneventful; we ordered a burrito (for Joe), quesadillas (for me), a taco salad (for Christie) and I got in trouble from the waitress for having my own water bottle at the table instead of spending 5 euro on one tiny bottle from the restaurant.  In other words, nothing too out of the ordinary happened.

After lunch, I was still pretty hungry so we set off to find the best Belgian waffle in all of Belgium.  The last time I was in Belgium, I tried a waffle or two and wasn't impressed.  But I knew if Belgium was known for its waffles, then I must have been missing something, so I decided to keep on sampling the waffles until I fully understood the phenomenon, no matter how long it took me -- a burden I was willing to bear. It was this firm resolve and determination that led us straight to Chez Albert, a small waffle shop that opens right up to Breidelstraat.

Maybe I'm crazy, but up until that moment at Chez Albert, I didn't understand that the Belgian waffles you order at brunch in the States are not actually Belgian waffles.  Traditional Belgian waffles are not fluffy, light, airy and covered in syrup.  On the contrary, they are crispy, baked (fried?) in sugar, crunchy, and topped with strawberries, fresh whipped cream, or your choice of other fruit-ish toppings.  Naturally, I ordered mine with strawberries and cream and almost collapsed into a state of sheer bliss as I finally got it: so this is why Belgium is known for its waffles.

A few other notable things happened that day.  First of all, Joe took a strong interest in a dead fish floating in the river.  He filmed a video of it (?) and then pointed at it, quite excitedly, as a boat of tourists rode past it down the river in a rented canoe.  Unsurprisingly, they did not seem as amused as he did.

A second item of note: around the time we spotted the dead fish, Christie climbed upon a soapbox of sorts, resuming our previous day's commentary on all major players of the Bachelor franchise; "I just want to write to Andi and tell her to go back to being an attorney.  I mean, the world has enough YouTube beauty bloggers as it is, you know?"

Her soapboxing continuing as she talked through her frustration over modern baby name trends, particularly cutesy names for baby girls; "You should name your daughter something that allows her to have a legitimate presence in the business world if she so desires.  Because, I'm sorry, but there's never going to be a CEO named Annabelle Louise."

Although, I should mention that I could kind of see someone named Annabelle Louise taking over the Honest Company in 50 years when Jessica Alba retires.  Just saying.

Later on, Christie said something to me -- something I've often heard from anyone who currently is or has been Facebook friends with me:  "Now, I've noticed that you seem to post a lot about Amanda Knox..... what is that all about?"  I gladly interpreted this question as an invitation to launch my hour-long presentation on the matter, and I can only imagine Joe's internal eye roll as he heard me summarize, for the umpteenth time, every book I've ever read about  the trial of Amanda Knox and all the events surrounding it.

After all that talk about murder and injustice, we were pretty tired, and had really seen all of Bruges there is to see (you can easily see Bruges in a day, just make sure you stop at Chez Albert for a waffle).  On our way back to the train station, though, we happened to pass by Zara, at which point Christie and I announced to Joe, "We will be right back -- we're just gonna take a quick look inside."

Three hours later, we were on the train to Brussels, shopping bags in hand.  I came home with 2 shirts, one pair of pants, and a sweater, all for under 50 euro!  

In related news, Joe tried on so many shoes but didn't buy a single pair, and if you know him but at all, this should shock you to your very core.

One more day in Brussels and then it's back to Oxford we go.  See you tomorrow!

En route to Grote Market, Brussels

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Pulling into Brussels, I was excited to see Christie and introduce her to Joe, and I was also looking forward to meeting Mathieu, her new husband.  But any feelings of excitement and anticipation were largely overshadowed by our sheer exhaustion from the hellish bus/ferry experience.

We stepped off the coach and headed inside the train station where we waited at a table just outside the Starbucks -- our designated meeting point -- until Christie made her way out of the metro, greeting us with a friendly smile and a hug.  It was 8:00 AM at that point, and she was on her way to work, so she handed us the key to her home, wrote down the name of our metro stop and quick directions to her apartment, and then we parted ways.  We told her that our plan was to take a tiny power-nap and then walk into the city, where we'd meander and sight-see until she got off work.  Then we'd meet her at Grote Markt at 5:30 that evening for dinner with her and Mathieu.  

We found her and Mathieu's apartment with no trouble and collapsed onto our bed as soon as we made it inside.  Joe had slept 2 hours the night before (on the coach ride from the ferry port to Brussels), whereas I had slept for a few more, so I did not expect to partake in any sort of power-napping (for the life of me, I cannot take mid-day naps unless I'm sick or in a moving vehicle/train/airplane; otherwise, once I'm awake, I'm awake until bedtime).  So I laid next to Joe, playing the Spades app on my phone, thinking, "I'll let him sleep for an hour or two and then wake him up to walk into the city with me."  

Five hours later, Joe and I both woke up, completely disoriented, albeit well-rested.  My first thought was: Great, just after we'd beaten our jet lag.  My second thought: I might die if I don't eat something.  I immediately scoured Christie's kitchen for snacks.  Cut to ten minutes later and we'd devoured a previously-unopened bag of chips and an entire pack of cookies.  I then sat on the couch and caught up on some emails while Joe showered and got ready.  As I finished my emails and began to get ready myself, Joe and I had a small disagreement about why my makeup was nowhere to be found (I swore I had handed it to Joe to pack before we left Oxford -- as he is the official packing coordinator -- whereas he had no recollection of my doing so) until I realized: what a great excuse to not wear makeup for 3 days!  Disagreement over.

Around 4:00, we finally left the house and started walking toward the city center to meet up with Christie.  We had 90 minutes to get there, and Google maps had predicted it would take us 63 minutes to access the city center on foot (we always walk everywhere to avoid paying for public transportation and, bonus!, you also really see the city that way).

Well, we saw a lot more of Brussels than we'd planned; it took us way longer to get to the city center than "63 minutes."  We still don't understand what happened, really.  We weren't at all lost, but we  (or rather, Google Maps) mistimed the journey very badly.   For example, when 5:30 rolled around, we were still 15-20 minutes away from Grote Markt.  We were near a bus stop, so I advised Joe that we board the bus and take it 2 stops to Grote Markt.  He suggested we just continuing walk and succumb to our lateness, but I persisted.  "It'll cost us 5 euro, but then we'll be 5 minutes late as opposed to 20."  Joe nodded, and we boarded the first bus that came by.

I knew that Belgium's 3 official languages are Dutch, French, and German.  So when we stepped aboard the bus, I asked the driver, in German, for 2 one-way tickets.  He stared at me, blankly, so I repeated myself.  He then asked me in English how many tickets I needed and when I told him 2 (in English), he asked for 5 euro (in English).  I was crushed.  Did I forget how to speak German?  I wondered.  Also, I'm pretty sure when Eleanor Roosevelt said that famous inspirational thing about not letting people make you feel inferior without your permission, she was talking about Belgian bus drivers.

Joe and I took our seats and I watched the stops flash on the screen as the bus made its route, and after 10 minutes, it occurred to me that we should have reached Grote Markt well before then -- it had only been 2 stops away from our starting point.  As I wondered this, Joe turned to me and said, "Hey, we've already been here before -- we drove by this place earlier."  To my horror, I realized he was right.  I couldn't believe we'd missed our stop, as I had been staring at the screen the whole time and 'Grote Markt' had never appeared on it.  Convinced I was losing my mind (and my ability to speak German, apparently), we stepped off at the next stop and realized we had inadvertently backtracked, like, one million steps.  This was incredibly frustrating.  To make matters worse, it was almost 6:00, which meant we were half an hour late and even further away from our destination than before.

"We have to find a place with wifi", I announced.  "I have to text Christie that we're running late."

The thought of Christie sitting in Grote Markt for half an hour wondering where we were caused me so much anxiety that I began to sweat.  We wandered around aimlessly, looking for a cafe or restaurant to lean against and casually steal wifi from.  After realizing that there seemed to be no such place in sight, Joe did the thing I swore we would never do (again): turned his phone off of airplane mode.  He surrendered his phone to me and solemnly said, "Text her."

As I scrolled through my phone to find her number so that I could type it into Joe's phone, I came to the sobering realization that her phone number was saved in iMessages on my computer, as opposed to the contacts in my phone.  Thus, I had no way of texting her.  I resorted to logging into Facebook and sending her a message there that said something along the lines of: "I'M SORRY! WE'RE COMING! DON'T HATE US! WE'LL BE THERE ASAP! WE'RE COMING, I PROMISE!  WE'RE GETTING ON THE BUS TO GROTE MARKT RIGHT NOW."

Spoiler alert No. 1: she never even saw the Facebook message.

Spoiler alert No. 1.5: I think sending that Facebook message cost us $800 in roaming charges.

As we boarded our second bus of the day, I begrudgingly ordered our tickets in English, delivering the request "Two tickets, please" in a melancholy tone that would give Ross Gellar's "Hi" voice a run for its money.

We set off in direction of the city center, this time determined to step off at the right stop.  "We can't miss Grote Markt this time, Joe!  We can't miss it again!"  

Spoiler alert No. 2: we missed it again.

But!  It wasn't our fault.  As we stepped off the bus -- this time at 6:15, anxiety reaching new heights -- I noticed a sign with a construction symbol on it.  It was written in French and in Dutch.  I used my one semester's college-level French to piece together a rough understanding of the French text and relied on my German to work my way through the Dutch text (weirdly similar languages) before successfully deducing one important message: no busses will be stopping at Grote Markt this weekend.  I interpreted this news as both good and bad; the former because it meant I haven't forgotten how to ride a bus and the latter because it meant that we had just spent the last half hour or so riding around on buses for no reason whatsoever.  A stupid waste of time and money if there ever was one.

Joe kept saying, "There's nothing we can do about it.  It's not our fault; it's not like we tried to be an hour late."  Nevertheless, the people-pleaser within me was cringing at the thought of Christie sitting in Grote Markt for an hour awaiting out arrival, and the cringing continued as we walked (power-walked) from the bus stop to Grote Markt.  Would she even be there?, I wondered.  Has she given up and just gone home?

Spoiler alert No. 3:  She was there!  She hadn't given up and gone home!

As soon as we saw her, sitting patiently in the Markt, I apologized a dozen times.  Unsurprisingly, she was completely understanding and cool about it, so much so that during my thirteenth apology, she cut me off and insisted I stop feeling bad about it.  After all, we had a night out in Brussels to enjoy.

And enjoy we did.  We started the evening off with some truffles (I picked 4 tiny truffles out from a little chocolate shop and split each of them with Joe, because the law of splitting dictates that sugar is only bad for you when consumed in wholes, not halves), checked out the house where Karl Marx wrote his Communist Manifesto, caught up on all pieces of gossip pertaining to the Bachelor franchise, and ate dinner not once but twice!  Although, truth be told, Joe and I had walked so many miles in our pilgrimage to Grote Markt that we could have eaten a third dinner and been totally fine with it.

The dinners (and truffles) were great (falafel for our first dinner, Thai noodles for our second) and spending time with Christie and her husband was so refreshing and restorative and relaxing (accidental alliteration, I swear), but perhaps the highlight of the evening occurred when I shamefully recounted to Christie my failed attempts to speak German with the bus driver.  "We don't speak German in Brussels," Christie explained.  "In fact, no one really speaks it in Belgium.  They say it's an official language or whatever, but no one really knows it."

I sighed an enormous sigh of relief; so I hadn't lost all knowledge of the language I spoke exclusively for 3 years!  Suddenly, I no longer felt inferior to the Belgian bus driver.  Eleanor Roosevelt would have been proud.  

On that celebratory note, we go to Bruges tomorrow!  I have never been.  And I've never even seen In Bruges.  So it'll be a real treat for me.  Can't wait.

From Oxford to Brussels

Friday, September 4, 2015

I'd booked our Eurolines coach tickets when we were in DC.  The price was such that I couldn't pass the tickets up (less than 50 GBP, round trip, for both of us).  So in a zealous act of rebellion ("Take that, Eurostar!  We don't need your 500-GBP-per-person Chunnel!"), I booked us an overnight coach.  It departed London at 11:30 PM and arrived in Brussels at 7:45 (a little over 7 hours with the time difference factored in) which seemed like the easiest route; we'd take a coach to the ferry, fall fast asleep, and when we awoke, we'd be in Belgium!  Right?  


Our first hiccup occurred before we'd even left Oxford.  We leisurely dawdled around formal dinner at Brasenose, socializing with friends, laughing, talking, enjoying the wine and three-course meal.  By the time we boarded the Oxford Tube at High Street, it was 8:45.  We knew that it took around 100-120 minutes to get from Oxford to London, and we knew the Tube dropped us off directly at our point of departure, so even if it took the full 120 minutes, we'd have more than enough time to board our coach.  Right?

Wrong again.

We were set to depart for Brussels from Victoria Coach Station, and the Oxford Tube stops at Victoria Station.  I knew enough to understand those two stations are not the same, but I had not considered the possibility that the two stations would not be connected in some way.   So when we stepped off the Tube at Victoria Station -- right on time, at 10:45 -- we were quite surprised and more than a little frazzled to realize Victoria Coach Station was nowhere in sight.

But then, a sign!  

We noticed a somewhat haphazardly-placed sign pointing in the general direction of Victoria Coach Station. The area was dark, very crowded, and worst of all, under construction (construction is among the list of top 10 things I hate to encounter while traveling, second only to scaffolding).  

We dodged through the crowd, weaving in an out of slow-walkers and sidewalk-pausers (and trying not to scowl as we passed them) until we reached a somewhat residential area of London.  By this point, it was 11:00 and we were getting frustrated, stressed, and discouraged.  Joe suggested we do something I hate to do: ask for directions.   Much to his surprise (and mine, actually), I didn't even hesitate before pushing my way into a nearby hotel lobby and asking the receptionist how to get to Victoria Coach Station.  "Go out the door, turn left, and walk until you see the stoplight.  Cross the street and you'll see it on your right", he told me.  "Thanks so much, have a good night!", I shouted on my way out the door.  Joe and I, backpacks and all, jogged down the street according to the helpful man's directions.  We didn't seem to be going in the right direction at all, but I trusted this man, in part because he looked just like the bellhop in That Thing You Do.  Thank goodness I trusted him, too, because his directions were right!  We came upon Victoria Coach Station with 15 minutes to spare.  Proud of our success, we breathed a sigh of relief and entered the station, ready to finally relax.  We checked the departure screen and saw that our 'gate' was number 19. "Great - it's all downhill from here!", I encouraged Joe with a smile.  And that's when we noticed the sign next to the departure screen: All Eurolines passengers must check in 60 minutes prior to boarding.  

"Well, they should have put that on our tickets!", I screamed to Joe.  

Indignantly, I looked down at the tickets I held in my hand.  "All Eurolines passengers must check in 60 minutes prior to boarding.", it read.  

"Oh.  Never mind."

Suddenly, our 15 minutes to spare seemed like 15 seconds.  We ran -- ran -- through the station, which was deceptively big.  To make matters worse, Gate 19 was the furthest gate from the entrance. We made it to the check-in counter around 11:20 and saw at least 50 people in line, waiting to board a coach to Paris, as designated by the giant screens above the counter.  A few weeks ago, when we were at the Dublin airport, a harried looking man asked us if he could "jump the queue" and we obliged him.  He thanked us profusely; he had to flight to catch and because we let him in front of us, he was able to make it.  We were happy to do so -- we had more than enough time go kill -- and I mentioned to Joe, "I hope someday if we ever have to 'jump the queue', the people we're jumping ahead of are this understanding."

For someone who fears admonishment as much as I do, 'jumping the queue' may as well be a federal crime.  But we had to do it.

Thus, I approached two young men standing in the very front of the queue and smiled my most persuasive smile.  "Is there any way we could jump the queue?  Our coach to Brussels leaves in 15 minutes."  Smiling back, they graciously accommodated me, stepping aside as I motioned for Joe to join me.  We got our boarding passes, I thanked the nice young men a dozen or so times, and off we went!  "Okay, Joe, it's all downhill from here.", I assured him.

And then.....

Waiting to board the coach, I asked our driver -- a Dutch man who looked exactly like Billy Bob Thornton -- how long until we board the ferry.  I knew we were riding a coach to the ferry, but when I booked the tickets, I imagined taking a quick coach ride to the ferry boat, sleeping a full 6 hours on the ferry boat, and then a taking quick coach ride from the ferry to Brussels.  I guess I could have, I don't know, looked at a map to realize this was geographically implausible but I didn't; it wasn't until I was standing in line to board the coach that I realized: we'd be on the bus for 2 hours, would then step off the bus to go through UK customs, would then proceed through another line of customs, only to re-board the coach, wait an additional 45 minutes in line to drive abroad the ferry, step off the coach and find a seat on the ferry, spend 2 hours on the ferry, board the coach again (parked on the ferry), and then drive off the ferry and ride another 2 hours until we arrived in Brussels.

In other words, we would not be sleeping.

I don't really want to talk about the rest of the night because I'd really like to erase it from my memory.  We were tired, we were delirious, we were disoriented, we were frustrated -- we were all the things you don't want to be when you're stuck on a bus with 40 strangers.  Mostly, we just wanted to be in a bed.  Laying down.  Sleeping.  With our contacts not in our eyes.  (Okay, maybe that one was just me).

Also, our bus driver (Billy Bob) was playing Ice Age (pronounced Eye Sage, if you're my 3-year-old niece) on the coach TV and kept putting the coach in park at stop lights to get up from his driver's seat and scrub the TV screen.  The light would turn from red to green, but BBT would still just be standing, coach in 'park', furiously wiping down the screen as though his job (and life?) depended on it.

There were also several road signs pointing to 'Channel Tunnel Chatham' and each time we passed them I swore -- swore -- they said Channing Tatum.

Joe didn't sleep on the coach ride to the ferry, or on the ferry itself.  I did (albeit uncomfortably).  So when we re-boarded the coach around 5:45 in the morning, Joe had been up all night, and he wasn't very happy about it (to say the VERY LEAST).

Thankfully, he slept the 2 hours from the dock to Brussels.  Otherwise our marriage might have been in jeopardy (more than it already was).

I will have a lot more to say about Brussels on Monday.  And good news: it won't be stressful at all!

Actually, it will be little bit stressful.  But just a little bit.

The Best Way to Travel from London to Belgium

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The best way to get from London to Belgium is the Chunnel (Eurostar).

The best way to get from London to Belgium is not by ferry (Eurolines).

For two people to travel this route via Eurostar, it can cost quite a few hundred pounds (one way).

For two people to travel this route via Euroliones, it can cost well under 50 pounds (round trip).

Can you guess how Joe and I travelled from London to Belgium?

I am way too exhausted to explain this now, but tomorrow.... it's coming.

Prepare yourselves for the story of our 8-hour journey (an overnight journey, mind you).

Here's a hint: it was an 8-hour journey that led to our needing a 5-hour nap upon arriving.

I need another nap just thinking about it.

Stay tuned....

All Souls College, University of Oxford

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Joe and I stumbled upon All Souls College the other day.  All Souls is one of Oxford's 44 Colleges and it's right next to Brasenose.  We weren't planning on stopping by but as we passed it, it looked so inviting and the weather was so nice that we decided to give it a little walk-around.  

One of the (many) things Oxford is known for is the Harry Potter movie franchise; several scenes from the various 8 movies were filmed in or around Oxford.  As we strolled through All Souls, we were convinced it was the setting for at least a scene or two of the movies (it's not).  We also met a young man -- from a non-English-speaking country -- traveling alone.  He asked us to take a photo of him (I took about 12) and then chatted with us for a minute, inquired about Joe's studies, how we like Oxford so far, etc.  My knee-jerk reaction was to invite him to spend the rest of the afternoon with us.  In fact, as our small talk winded down and I watched our new friend wander over to a bench, sit down (alone) and open a book, I felt as though I had an affirmative duty to show this guy around Oxford and ensure that he had a wonderful time.  Joe, on the other hand, thought I was crazy.  So I explained to him that traveling alone has its own special code; there's sort of an unwritten rule that lone travelers stick together, or at least look out for another other.  This is how Kaitlyn and I spent an afternoon kayaking with an Australian in the Schwarzwald, how I spent a day at Brindisi Beach, Italy mourning Heath Ledger's death with an Irish guy and an Australian girl, and also how I found a very dear friend in a fellow single passenger on a train ride in Poland.  I ran through all of these anecdotes for Joe -- along with a dozen other stories -- but he remained unconvinced that every lone traveler we come across should be our new best friend.  Whatever.  We went on to have a very pleasant afternoon at All Souls nonetheless!

But more important than our afternoon at All Souls was what happened before our afternoon at All Souls: we stopped by the bus company's office to find out the best way to get to London tomorrow.  Because....we're going to Belgium!  I talked to the woman at the counter and figured out a) which ticket to get (2 student return tickets), b) which bus stop we should wait at (the stop on High street), c) how much it will cost for the both of us (74 GBP), d) how long it takes to get to Victoria Station, which is where we board our ferry bus (around 100 minutes), and e) which bus to take (either the X90 or the Oxford Tube).

Belgium, I can't wait to see you again!

And Joe just can't wait to see you!