Many journeys, both internal and external, have been traveled in the last four decades of this unexpected life of mine. I have also lived in numerous places. Without giving any of these moves much thought, I have lived in Syracuse, Potsdam (NY—not Germany), Dallas, the Hudson Valley, West Hartford (CT), London, Old Town Alexandria (VA), Astoria, and the north shore of Long Island, in that order.
None of these places were expected. However, once a decision was made, they were planned with some degree of efficiency, as time was always of the essence. With each of these locations, different local customs and norms were learned, and I began being more comfortable with the unknown. I also started becoming more comfortable in my own skin.
Side trips as simple as three hour car rides, or decidedly more complicated foreign and domestic trips while in charge of hundreds of teenagers were taken. None of my destinations were anywhere near what anyone would deem exotic. However, there was some planning and forethought involved.
When people move, there is an ebb and flow to life in a new town. There is some trepidation, then the joy of discovering good restaurants, originally unnoticed side streets, and spots to take relaxing walks. Then we tend to notice shortcomings in our new location. We often pine away for our previous lives.
Something that one may not consciously realize until they revisit a former living spot is that each location has its own scent. Whenever I make a return visit to a previous home, the first of the senses that comes back to me is smell. It may be trees, exhaust, air quality, restaurants, or just something that was always there, but not previously noticed. It is usually subtle. Maybe this occurs because we see photos and videos of our prior lives, but they do not include scents. A plausible theory.
Getting to the point of my post: This past summer I made what has become a nearly annual trip to see friends in London. More accurately, this group now lives just outside of London in Surrey…which seems to be the socio-economic equivalent to New York’s Westchester County. I have stayed in Surrey three times. Incidentally, it has a different scent than West Hampstead, which was my home during a three-year stint as a music teacher at The American School in London.
I typically stay with friends, wander around the neighborhood, frequent a couple of pubs, and have wonderful backyard (garden) barbecues. Great conversations ensue and only a few excursions take place, as there is really no need to sightsee in a city where you lived for three years and have visited at least twenty times since.
Heading to Brussels
We do, however, usually take one daylong (or more) excursion to somewhere new. This time, on a whim, my friend David and I decided to take the Eurostar to Brussels. There was a good price deal and the train itinerary would make for perfect timing to enjoy a full day in the Belgian capitol. I had only previously spent two hours there when transferring during a family trip from London to Bruges. I didn’t plan the one day jaunt to Brussels one bit…not even a glance at the attractions via Google search. What great fun this would be!
The day started off well. We scored a couple of spots in the First Class lounge at London’s St. Pancras Station, and I was quite proud of myself for this spur of the moment trip to another country. It really is a bit ridiculous how I view these things. I don’t believe in bucket lists, but somehow feel ‘cool’ if I visit another country.
While living in London in the early 2000’s, my fellow teachers would talk ad nauseam of their adventures after a long weekend. At the time, it felt to me that they were bragging. Meanwhile, here I was, almost fifteen years later internally doing the same thing. Look at me, Mr. Go-To-Brussels-With-No-Plan. This same smugness resided in my brain during the two-hour Eurostar ride. Look at me, breezing through the French countryside.
Arrival in Belgium
You see, the problem was, when we arrived it quickly became apparent that it was very hot, I hadn’t dressed properly, I wasn’t feeling the urge to drink a lot of Belgian beer (arguably the best thing about Belgium), and I wore shoes not suitable for walking all day. If I am completely honest, my travel companion was incredibly patient, because I wasn’t the best company. A somewhat dark mood had beset me, and I was obsessed with the amount of weight I had gained in recent months, one of the reasons I decided to forgo most of the Belgian ale.
The sightseeing began. We walked to a famous fountain called ‘Mannekin Pis,’ which is a bronze sculpture of a naked boy urinating into the fountain’s base. A quick internet search while writing this post revealed that the fountain used to be an important origin of drinking water in Brussels….Hmm. After taking a few photos of the boy pisser, we meandered around the streets until we found a wonderful cafe, which one could only find if they knew where to look. Without even remembering the name, David found the place!
A Hidden Gem
The cafe entrance was reached after walking through a small tunnel-like entranceway, followed by a tiny alley that led back to the restaurant. There were two or three tables outside. We sat at one. What a fantastic spot! Tunnel in front, the cafe behind us, and flats going up approximately four stories on either side. We ordered two clay jugs of great beer and enjoyed the late-morning sun and some good quiet conversation. We also listened in, as much as we could with the language barrier, to the waitress and her fellow workers as they smoked their cigarettes while we were still the only customers. It was truly lovely.
After an hour or so, we wandered some more. The buildings and winding roads were picturesque. It was also becoming quite hot. Too early for lunch, we wandered some more. And then some more. The thing is: the best places either featured chocolate or beer, neither of which agreed with my aforementioned waistline obsession. We sat down at a few places, David sipped some great ales, and I stubbornly drank water. More wandering—hey, look a cathedral! Well, that killed about ten minutes, followed by a thirty minute respite in the park across the street. Now it was time for lunch.
A Surprisingly Good Lunch!
After reading several menus, we selected a tastefully designed, modern looking restaurant with a good selection of local specialties. I don’t remember our exact choices, but they definitely included the Belgian staples stoemp, waterzooi, and carbonnades flamandes. Stoemp is delicious sausage paired with a combination of mashed potatoes and veggies. Waterzooi is a light white-sauced fish stew (I had the chicken version), and carbonnades flamandes is best described as a rich, beautifully brown Belgian version of Beef Bourguignon. The meal was excellent. Plated expertly, the food was not only flavorful, but it was clearly made with fresh ingredients and the aromas added to the experience. The air conditioning was also welcomed.
So, you may be wondering why this trip didn’t live up to expectations. The answer is solely in the timeframe. Time management is one of the most overlooked part of any trip, whether it be a road trip, a week abroad, or two weeks at a villa.
In my experience, the time pitfalls of traveling can be placed in two categories: 1. Packing too much into a short window of time. 2. Not having enough ideas to fill up any given timeframe. We had inadvertently fallen into the second. Our meal was finished before 2:00 PM and our train was heading back somewhere around 7:00 PM. Five hours to kill and we had probably seen all we needed to. But how would I know for sure? I didn’t research! Honestly, the afternoon and evening would have been a breeze if I had only decided to enjoy the ale!
The bottom line is that we walked around a lot and I was terrible company. My shoes were doing considerable damage to my feet (a blister or two had formed) and I was sweltering. What a baby! A bit of levity did ensue when David remembered that he had promised to buy cartons of cigarettes, which were considerably less expensive on the Continent.
We ended up walking in circles for nearly two hours hoping to find them at a cheap bodega. I somehow found it hilarious that he ended up purchasing them at the high-end Davidoff cigar shop. The gentleman at the counter was ready to let us get a whiff of all the best cigars they had to offer, but instead he grimly reached under the counter for the cigarette cartons, plastered with highly offensive photos meant to keep people from smoking. The cartons were, even at this elite smoke shop, still priced much lower than in London.
Our Anticlimactic Return
We took an uneventful train ride back to London and raced to our friend Bruce’s pizza restaurant to have some fun reminiscing about the olden days. But, par for the second half of the day, we were told that Bruce was on Holiday. While literally running to catch the Tube to Waterloo Station, something extremely painful happened to one of the blisters I referenced earlier. I limped as fast as I could, we purchased piecemeal food at the Sainsbury supermarket in the station, and caught the train back to Surrey.
While painfully making my way to the house, I realized I wasn’t so cool after all.
Three of my take-aways from Brussels in 2018:
- Research your destination.
- Always wear good footwear.
- Even travels that are not perfect have GREAT moments!
In My Unexpected Life: Travel, Food, and More, I will share stories, thoughts, and simple ideas to entertain and maybe even inspire others to engage with new food, travel, and more…no matter how big or small those experiences may be.
Even if my writings do not produce the desired result—please enjoy the blog!