Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Bruxelles, Fin.

The last two weeks of Brussels was ... intense.  How do you say goodbye to a place that you've been a part of, and apart from, for the last few months?  Part of my sadness also came the fact that I was graduating.  What am I, a 22 year old Psychology-Communications double-major, qualified to do? How am I to survive in the real world?

Still, there were great moments.  I met up with a cool guy, I made friends with a former Italian study abroad (wish I'd met her earlier), I finally danced on table tops.  I laughed until I cried, I showed Brussels to people I'd met in Berlin, I said goodbye to Madame Dufrasne.



While I was getting ready to leave, I made a short list of ridiculous things I heard in Brussels:

1. It looks like a hairy caterpillar... Let's eat it! -- R. K.
2. Do ducks have cold feet? -- E. G.
3. Scrabble is a great... euphemism.  There are many kinds of Scrabble, especially with the international boards. -- C. E.
4. Yeah, I did (basically equate women to cats and men to dogs). -- C. E.
5. I don't know about you, but I'm feeling twenty-two! -- R. K.
6. Few things are more frustrating that short bread in tall toasters. -- M. B.
7. (About Grand Place) It's kinda like Costco! -- R.K.


The things I'll miss: a quick beer, waiting for the lights at Grand Place, speaking in Franglish because I can. I'll miss the grocer's down the street, being able to walk or take the bus (even though I always refused to run for them), ending up in the weird areas of town because Google Maps sucks at times.  I'll miss taking the train or airplane to a different country for the weekend.


The day before I left, I finally went to Antwerp.  Not because I had to, but because I wanted to.  I wanted to get away from Brussels (if only for a moment) because I didn't want to think about leaving.  I wanted to pretend that it was just another weekend getaway.



I think Dr. Seuss said it best "Remember me and smile, for it is better to forget, than to remember me and cry."

Monday, May 27, 2013

"Ich Bin Ein Berliner": My Trip to Berlin

My friend, who shall be known as Margarita, and I are giggling as we walk through BRU, Brussels National Airport.  We have decided, on a whim, to fly out to Berlin.

As we left the airport, we noticed a little Coke machine.  Images on it include the Atomium, fries, Mannekin Pis and the Belgian flag.

We are quite lucky.  The plane ticket and hostel cost us (at most) around 300 euros, including getting to and from the airports.  The hostel (look up The Circus Hostel) was fantastic and fun: enter the main building by walking through a lion's mouth, and go up an elevator located between the legs of a ringmaster.  The first night, we end up having dinner across the street from our hostel: greasy, cheap "Chinese" food (I use the quotation marks because I've had real Chinese food, and fake Americanized Chinese food).

The fact of the matter was we had been unable to find Chinese food in Brussels under 40 euros, when in Berlin, we found stir-fry noodles for under 3 euros!

That night, we didn't do much.  At first, the front desk recommended we go to a bar, but of course, we didn't find it.  So, in the end, we went to the 24 hour store across the street, tried some drinks, and went to sleep.

I thought it was a light German beer with the label "Scaredy Cat"... Turns out it was wine!

The first day, we decided on walking by ourselves.  At the same time, we found out that our hostel was hosting a visit to the Topography of Terror Museum, so we ended up tagging along.

There's something decidedly depressing about the location.  The museum is located where the former Nazi party police was headquartered.  This includes the SS and Gestapo.

There's a wall, each square with a name and crimes committed.  The few raised squares are those that have had charges brought against them, or have been found guilty of crimes.

Somehow, afterwards, we walked to Checkpoint Charlie and visited quite a few random points.  There's a lot of parts of the old wall, which artists have simply taken over.  I mentioned that I wanted to see the East Side Gallery and Margarita was excited.

There is some much great graffiti and art.  What stands out is this set of "More Walls to Tear Down" which is aimed at dictators and oppressive rulers.

I loved how this wall was right in front of an advertisement that said "You are entering the non-profit sector."

Margarita decided that the bear needed a high-five. 

Unfortunately, we had to take a train and unfortunately, there were clouds.  We end up in the rain, and decide to find shelter.  We ducked into an artist's workshop, which had three installations, and quite a few busy artists.  There was even a working bar!

Outside was intense.  A metal sculpture was in front of the building.  The whole area was covered in graffiti, and we even saw someone in the process of tagging.

I decided that Instagram was the perfect forum for a few pictures I took.

"Pourquoi Pas?"

Further down the street, the rain started up again.  This time, we found shelter in a little coffee shop (unlike the ones in Amsterdam, this one sold only coffee and food).  Margarita opted for a coffee and I chose to try the "Berliner."  To be honest, I wasn't even sure what a jelly doughnut was.

The "Berliner" (jelly doughnut") was a little disappointing: not enough jelly, and too much powdered sugar.  Oh well.

Once the rain paused, there was another mad dash, this time going back towards the bridges that we'd left earlier.  We were trying to find the East Side Gallery.  Eventually, we found it.  Over a mile of the old wall, covered in different artists and art works.

I thought this highly appropriate, especially at the start of the gallery.

I think he needed a ride.

I tried currywurst... Not bad, but it's not my favorite.

That night, we hear about this place called Cookie Club.  Granted, it's supposedly the "best" (and only) club open on a Tuesday. While a few of us decide to go to Cookie Club, Margarita and I make plans to also have brunch with two lovely gals.

Cookie Club is surprisingly silent on a Tuesday.  I say surprising because everyone had been talking it up.  Instead, there is a two story empty space, with less than 70 people.  There is also a bed on the lower floor.  Eventually, we make it back to the hostel, despite trying (and unsuccessfully at that) to find food.

The next day, Margarita lay in bed while I went off to the aforementioned brunch/breakfast.  To be fair, I was operating on less than four hours of sleep, so I was not at my best.  Breakfast was a very fun affair with Kat and Lauren, talking about our lives and how we got to Berlin.  There was also coffee.

Absolutely divine, no? There were currants, so many types of cheese, museli, and lots of meat!

Our food takes forever to arrive (nearly an hour), but we still make it back in time for the afternoon walking tour. We visit Museum Island, the square where they burned books, the hotel where Michael Jackson dangled his baby out the window.  We go back to Checkpoint Charlie and the Topography of Terrors.  We sit, stand, squat over the remains of Adolf Hitler's underground bunker.

The memorial of a mother weeping over a soldier.  The light always falls to illuminate their faces just so...

This was on the steps of the main building at Museum Island, also the building where Hitler would give his speeches.

That night, it's decided that we'll go out with a bang.  After all, it's our last night in Berlin, and the next day is a holiday, which means that public transportation will be slower, so we have to leave nearly an hour earlier, just to make out flight.

Margarita and I, along with a group of five other hostel friends, head towards Tresor. Our hostel happily gave us half-off entry tickets.  Tresor is a factory club, a warehouse club.  The outside is shiny steel and mirrored lights.  They ask for ID and I smack myself mentally.  Of course I forget it.  But they wave me in anyways.  

Inside, it's smoke, beer bottle caps  on the ground, bricks and music.  There are little booths where people can hide and there are slats inside those booths, that support the body weight of three or four people (we tested this out).  There are red lights, cute guys, a long hallway that seems to go on endlessly.

It's a little before five in the morning when we finally stumble into the hostel.  We grab our bags, hungrily munch on Chinese food.  We take the underground metro line, hop onto the bus and wearily wait in the airport.  Margarita dozed off now and again, while I stayed up to make sure that we didn't miss the bus or the flight.

Part of me is as sad as this man. The other half looks forward to returning to Brussels.

The trip from Brussels Airport back to the city... is another exhausting saga on its own (turns out, we forgot that it was a national holiday in Brussels too)...

In the end, I learned:

- Margarita and I did not look like tourists (we were approached to donate blood or something, because we looked local).
- You can't buy a lot of things in a pharmacy without a prescription (including antiseptic things like Neosporin).
- The Ritter Sport store's wholesale prices equal 1USD. While Ritter Sport in the States is priced at nearly double that amount.

Oh, and it turns out that JFK was actually grammatically correct by saying "Ich Bin Ein Berliner".

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Bruxelles, Easter Break: Part 3

 The second day of Krakow, I signed up for a tour of Auschwitz and Birkenau, as well as the Wieliczka Salt Mines.

What can I say about Auschwitz?  What can I add to years of humility, of sadness, of regret, of shame? Nothing, except my agreement that Primo Levi was absolutely right with the quote "I am constantly amazed by man's inhumanity to man."

The gate at Auschwitz needs no translation.

At Birkenau, the vast emptiness and the endless snow made the day even more solemn.
One figure is a woman, one figure is a man, and one figure is a child.  

After the sadness of Auschwitz, the beauty and silliness of the salt mines are a welcome relief.  Our tour guide is a happy blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl, with an easy smile and impeccable English. She tells us jokes about other tour groups (One bachelor party brought a bottle of tequila and a bag of cut-up limes, and would periodically do shots on the tour, using the salt on the walls. They were drunk at the end.), asks us our opinion about the mine ("What is the best mine in the world? And please remember, I am the only one who knows the way out of here!") and tells us that breathing in deeply or singing inside of the mine is meant to improve your physical health (I end up singing a refrain of the Seven Dwarfs).

The salt has warped in places, where your hand can fit perfectly!

I try the salt, but am without tequila or limes.

That night, I debate going out again. I feel exhausted, both mentally and physically, while my stomach growls in hunger and my wallet winces from paying the 70 euros for the tour.  In the end, I am won over by my persistent dorm-mates: two college students attending university in Krakow.  They take me to several bars, including on where you have to climb through a wardrobe to get to the other, much quieter side (it is essentially The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe).  

Afterwards, I head back to the hostel and am exhausted.  There is a large group of Irish students who are celebrating their last night in Poland, before they return to Ireland.  Between drinking, singing and being told that the hostel's neighbors have called the police, we end up at a Krakow club.  There are three floors of music, of reggae and hip-hop, of electronic, of pop.  

The night ends at 3am, with some of us girls eating in the kitchen, laughing at the night.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Bruxelles, Easter Break: Part 2

"Poland is not a very large country, but it's not a very small country."
- Donald Trusk, Prime Minister of Poland

My fingers shiver a little, as I munch on a chocolate chip energy bar, and my boots squish just a bit.  It's early in the morning in Krakow, Poland.

I stumbled out of the train, still half-asleep, and walked through the station.  Not yet 8 in the morning, but I've already made a silly mistake: I stood in front of the "Transportation" window for fifteen minutes, hoping that they can explain to me how to buy a transport ticket in the city, only to be told by a kindly old man that the window is meant for people with issues buying a train ticket LEAVING Poland.  As if that wasn't enough, the visitor's office that he sends me to is closed, until 9 AM.

There is little else to do, but walk around the old town.

It's silent.  Not entirely silent, but just enough that the sound of my camera shutter CLICK-ing travels through alleyways, that I hear a car drive over cobblestones two streets away, that the sound of a metal tent being set up in the square rings clear through.  As if my sleep deprivation wasn't enough, there's a thick oppressive layer of fog and the sky, despite being grey, is still bright.

The square in the middle of Old Town Krakow is nearly deserted...

...except for flower vendors...

...old women selling baked goods for 1 zloty, 1 zloty 50...

...and vendors setting up a toy stand.

I wander around, my backpack heavy, my stomach rumbling, and an insistent need for coffee.  I somehow find my way into the Wawel Royal Castle.  I pay a ridiculously cheap entrance fee to look at Leonardo da Vinci's painting titled Lady with an Ermine.

The castle's green dome and red brick stand out against a grey sky and lonely trees.

Along the back of the castle, the river runs, almost silently.

Finally, once the tourist office opens, I get directions for a divine restaurant in the Jewish quarter.  I have coffee, with cinnamon and sweetened with honey.  There are little breakfast pierogis (Polish dumplings), things that look like pigs-in-a-blanket, a buckwheat porridge with cream and fruit (I don't even know what buckwheat is).

Afterwards, I continue to walk.  I go to Oskar Schindler's ceramics factory (the same Schindler from the movie Schindler's List, directed by Steven Speilberg).  Next door is a modern art museum which I happily visit.  I walk into a showing of the Bodies exhibition. There's an outdoor market with fourteen different tents, selling everything from cuckoo clocks to secondhand cookbooks.

I even walk across a bridge covered in padlocks and undying declarations of love.

 Finally, I head towards the hostel I have booked.  But disaster strikes.  When I arrive, the house looks empty, no one answers the doorbell and the phone number is out of service.  Then it starts to rain.  A neighbor comes by and tells me that the hostel has been closed for nearly a month.

I almost cry, since I have no map (I didn't think to pick one up from the tourist office), and my cell phone has run out of credits.

Then, a knight in shining armor arrives.  Well, more like a businessman in a BMW.  His name is Stefan, he is born and raised Cracovian, and he asks if I need help.  Once I explain the situation, he calls his office and asks one of the ladies working to give him a list of hostels.

He then proceeds to drive me to one of the hostels and pay for my first night, simply because he feels very bad for me.  That was my first experience with Polish generosity, but by no means my last.

After that experience, I am exhausted.  However, I hear two magical words "PUB CRAWL" and, after taking a shower, am suddenly rejuvenated.

The rest of the night is a blur of silliness and laughter:

I meet a group of guys from the UK, a street magician amazes and dazes me with several tricks, there's dancing on top of a bar, several people get lost, I am introduced to a shot affectionately called "Mad Dog" (vodka, fruit syrup and Tabasco sauce).

I am even introduced to the game of "flip cup" and my team wins!

I don't get back to my hostel until 5 in the morning, the next day.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Bruxelles, Easter Break: Part 1

It started with a simple "Why not": why not visit Vienna, another country?  Why not use my Easter break to have fun?  Why not travel and treat myself to a short European whirlwind tour?

With that idea, a few hastily discussed suggestions, and a credit card, I booked a flight to Vienna. From Vienna, I would theoretically be shown around by a friend, travel through Poland, Budapest, and Prague.  Then, I would go to Berlin before finishing my time on vacation.

Of course, the best laid plans consistently go to waste.

I arrive at 10pm, and confidently stroll out, my backpack slung onto my back. I'm sure that my friend is going to be there, that I'll meet her parents, and we'll exchange pleasantries.  At the same time, I'm sure that we'll both be ready to fall asleep almost immediately.

Instead, once I stroll out, I end up waiting.  I spend the night in the airport, waiting to hear from my friend.  I spend the next day, waiting and wandering through Vienna.  I spend a good hour, waiting to hear from the police once I've been pick-pocketed.  I spend another hour, waiting to see if I can get a train ticket reissued and to see how many ways I can plead with the bank to give me some money when all I can find is my credit card. I wonder how I am going to enjoy this vacation.

In short, I spend my first 24 hours suspended in a state that Voltaire described as "waiting in the expectation of living."

Afterwards though, I decide to enjoy my vacation.  I still call and message and text my friend, worried since I don't hear from her.

I found a hostel, called Meninger, which made my stay a bit easier to handle: I now had a bed to rest in, a place to stay.  Hip hip hooray!

Over the next few days, I decided to enjoy Vienna.  I took a walking tour. I visited a bar that had a clothesline covered with *a-hem* donated bras.  I ate Viennese violet candies.

Inside the Albertina museum.  It reads: "Wherever man hopes to take the mysteries of nature by surprise, he finds only his own image reflected in the mirror.  No diver knows, before he goes down, what he is going to bring up." The quote is in English and German, courtesy of Max Ernst."

The Manner shop is filled with different things: neopolitan liquer, cookies, chocolates.

This delightful store is where I also tried Viennese violets.

I stared at Gustav Klimt's painting of The Kiss, ate sachertorte in Vienna, sat on the huge spinning Ferris Wheel.  I drink Almdudler (a popular soda), listen to a street-performer play the accordion, and try Wienerwurst.

I walk around the Vienna Central Cemetery.  I go through the Museum Square.  I stop at the House of Music.

Then I leave.  After three days, I leave for Poland, for Krakow, for Warsaw.  I sit on an overnight train and try to sleep as my cot (one of six) rattles against chains that metal frames.  I toss and turn.  And wake up in another country.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Poetic License

I'll be updating my blog later on, but due to technical difficulties (my camera seems to be broken, and my smartphone is uploading photographs quite slowly), enjoy a written piece of work for now!

Vous m'avez dit,
            (we whispered secrets when we were younger, but now)
                        le monde n'existe que dans ma tête, sur mes rêves, sans explications
                                    (I wonder if the things we never said have a heavier weight)
                        je ne vous ai pas cru
            (as if they could hang around our necks, impede us like a Pilgrim's Progress)
mais maintenant, j'ai tout compris
            (it is another's duty to bring these words forth)
                        bien que les écrivains ne pourraient pas plus être plein d'esprit
                                    (after all, a pun of mei, mei, mei, means none, beautiful, every)
                                                [没人, 美人, 每人]
                                                [no person, beautiful person, every person]
les langues me moquent, et j'ai rien compris.
            (I can imagine your lips curled in some bizarre smirk)
                        [于是你和我, 语言和雨眼]
                        [yu shi ni he wo, yu yan he yu yan]
                        [therefore, it is you and me, language and rainy eyes]
(There is something saddening when  jokes only make sense in the language of
If I could, then I would RISE
            (je resterai en pointe)
                        on tip-toe with  fingers outstretched
            (dans la direction du soleil)
just so that 
I could wander
            (in wonder)
                        into this building, with all the neat and tidy rows
                                    (of languages and fonts, too STILTED and NOT MY OWN)
                                                of baggage and luggage and crates
                                    (they look with disdain)
                        that are stacked and loaded on slats half-broken
            (I have spoken too much, too soon, too loud)
and reach forth, to grasp a hand(le) and move onto another destination
            (rules and books can't prepare you for the unknown, when even they don't  know)