Monday, May 16, 2011

Past Travels - Europe 2007

Four years ago, I embarked upon the craziest, more exciting journey of my life.  I thought I had posted about it here, but found it on my (very) old LiveJournal.  As I approach post 300 on this blog, I want to recount (or, rather, repost) my European adventures.  Ignore the LiveJournal names in bold, none of them post there any more.


March 3, 0725 (-5) Capital City Airport

Made it to the airport. I was a bit nervous about finding it, but it tuned out to be very easy. I also had no problem getting through security. I'm not excited about all the papers I have to carry around, though. The roads were bad in some spots, mostly around the 55 mph zone just north of Lansing, but it cleared out after that.

I still can't believe I'm really doing this. I'm heading to Europe. I just wish I had gotten more sleep. I still have over 90 minutes to wait, which is probably why I'm writing in this thing right now.

March 3, Lansing, On Board

I just boarded a very tiny jet. At least I get a window seat while I can enjoy it. I have about an hour after liftoff until reaching Chicago. We're now at the end of the runway, but have a 30 minute delay. I'm very glad now that I have a four hour layover at my destination.

I'm very excited, but still nervous. It's funny how I can easily navigate Orlando International Airport, but worried about getting lost in Lansing with its eight terminals. O'Hare, though, will be a bit different.

March 3, O'Hare International Airport

Well, this is definitely a large airport. I've only seen a small portion of it and have seen two McDonald's. I had Chinese for lunch, which probably wasn't the best decision.

The wait is getting boring. At least I can snooze on the plane without worrying about missing my flight. And I can nap during the break at DC. Some sleep would be very nice about now.

March 3, Dulles International Airport

Everyone had to disembark at Dulles. At least I'm able to stretch my legs. Now I'm back on board, and everyone is trying to stow their stuff. I'm glad I just have my backpack. It fits nicely under the seat in front of me.

I tried calling home so that Mom wouldn't worry to much, but the were out. I guess I'll just have to email whenever I can. At least this is the last leg of my trip. When I leave this plane, I'll be in Europe.

March 4, Somewhere Over Europe

We're nearing our final approach. I'm a bit nervous about what's going to happen after we land. How difficult will it be to go through customs? Is my suitcase really on board this plane? Will it be very difficult to find _verbal_?

I can see lights below us, few and far between. Are they boats in the ocean? Never mind, I see larger collections. Is this France? Belgium? Are we heading north over Luxembourg? I just got my head smashed by the seat in front of me. Good thing I have a thick skull.

The seat belt signs are lit. We're over Belgium. The captain just told us it's a bit chilly out right now. The highways are all lit up. Looking out, I can see where all the major roads are, even though the sun is just starting to rise (directly in front of our pilots). I assume I'm looking down over Brussels. I could be living near here in several months!


March 4, moira__c's Parent's House

It's been a long day. _verbal_ found me with no problem. We had some hot chocolate (well, I did) and he drove me up to see moira__c at her parent's house. I met her family (awesome people). The family dog wasn't too happy to see me, though. Then she and I took off to Ghent. We walked about 10 km (about 6 miles) and came back to a great meal. (More on Ghent later.) I gave moira__c her gift, which she seemed to enjoy. I was able to get online and send out a few emails. I hope I have fun again tomorrow. Spending time with moira__c was a lot of fun.

March 5, Evening, The Hostel at Leuven

It's later in the day, but I'm not sure of the time. I slept for 14 hours last night, and then we took the train to Leuven. I'm sharing a room with a guy from France and another from Rome. Both seem to be nice guys.

Today was a lot of fun. Leuven is a great town. Too bad I have to leave it at the end of the week. None of the streets were straight for any useful length and the bikes seem to outnumber the cars. They even share the same roadway. I was able to pick up the first two Harry Potter books in Dutch. I'm hoping to learn Dutch at a faster pace by having better motivation than I have had in the past. I also got to meet lorien__ in the afternoon. We had a lot of fun walking around town and talked a bit while eating dinner at a nice restaurant. Then we did some more walking. And we'll do more of that on Friday. She may also join _verbal_ and I on Wednesday.

March 6, High Speed Train to Paris

I met my first fellow American. He's from Missouri and has a Flemish wife. He even helped me find my train (I was running late). But I made it. I have a LOT to see in Paris. And I think I put too many things in my backpack. (This backpack has been with me since my first semester of college at CMU.) And why do I always seem to be facing the wrong way on the trains?

Now my trip is almost halfway done. I probably should reflect on how my trip has gone. Thankfully, the answer is: great! In fact, I would have loved just staying in and exploring Leuven the entire week, especially if I get accepted to study there. It would have been fun letting myself get lost and finding my way back to the train station several times. After that, it would be much more difficult to get lost. Right now I'm moving at about 300 kph (or about 200 mph). Everything is flying by. I hope I get a window seat on the way back so I can get some of this on film.

March 6, Afternoon at the Hostel

I must say that I am amazed. Shocked, even. Paris, to put it simply, sucks. There have been very few highlights so far. I had better start at the beginning. I was almost late for my train. It was overcast then. By the time I arrived in Paris, it was drizzling. I jumped on the metro and went to the Buttes Chamont stop, like I had planned. It was windy and rainy. I would have had to juggle my guidebook, umbrella, and the camcorder. Not that I wanted my mother's camcorder to get wet, of course. I retraced most of my steps on the metro and went to the catacombs. I found some other Americans there. Too bad they were morons. I'm glad none of my friends would have tried getting a picture of them licking one of the skulls. I left the catacombs almost a kilometer from where I started. I started walking in what I thought was the direction of the entrance and found it a few minutes later. I then took the metro to the Rue Mouffetard market area. Big mistake. While Office Depot looked interesting (or the New York Style pizzeria), not much else did.

There didn't seem to be any metro stops near where I was walking, nor signs to interesting things. I attempted to wander north, with varying success. I guess I'm not much of a traveler. Yet. I found the river and Notre Dame. I filmed a bit of the outside, including a closeup of a gargoyle. I walked west just a bit to the Pont Neuf. I had thought it was only open to foot traffic, but was wrong. Nice bit of construction work. I was able to see the top of the Eiffel Tower, but I wanted to wait and visit it when it was nicer out. Or tomorrow. Whichever came first. But I instead went to the hostel. With its poor lighting. And stained sheets.

So, what do I think of Paris so far? cold, wet, and almost miserable. I would have had more fun in Leuven. But that might just be the rain talking. After all, it's caused me to give up seeing a lot of what I came to see. I'm hoping I can fix some of that tomorrow. At least I didn't stop by the Louvre. It's closed on Tuesdays.

March 6, Evening, Paris

I don't have a high opinion of Paris yet. I still think it may be because of the weather. But it's also no fun going alone. And it's difficult if you don't know the language and no one around you seems to know yours. I'm hoping Amsterdam isn't like this. I don't think I'll be going back out tonight. I'll just try to get an early start tomorrow.

March 7, Morning, Paris

Blue skies!

March 7, Afternoon, on train

I did more today than yesterday, but still not as much as I wanted. I had time enough for one, possibly even two, more things, but had no way to tell the time. Oh, well. It'll be nice to get 'home' to Leuven. And I have to meet _verbal_ and lorien__ when I get back. I'm hoping I have time for a shower, but I doubt it.

It was a rushed day today. Much more rushed than I wanted. First, I met a guy from Argentina, Shawn. He decided that it would be better if we stuck together, since we both wanted to visit the Louvre, and I agreed. We walked through it a bit, after avoiding the crowd by using a back entrance. The first major thing we visited was the Venus de Milo. I took some film and Shawn was gone when I looked up. I kept an eye out, but never saw him again. Instead, I went and saw the Mona Lisa, the Scribe, and some other Egyptian artifacts. I filmed some other things along the way. Then, due to the odd layout of the metro, i walked to the Eiffel Tower. I was going to stop by the Musee de Rodin, but I wasn't sure how much time I had. I really wanted to see the Thinker, too. Anyway, I walked along the Seine, which took a while. Next time I visit Paris, I want to spend a LOT more time in the museums.

After the Tower, which I did not climb, I went to the train station to shop and wait for my train. Remember that I did not have my watch. That explains why I was three hours early. But I was able to get my brother something along with a magazine to read. After a hefty wait, I was able to board the train.

Overall Impressions: Paris

Mixed. I can talk about the good, the bad, and the ugly. We'll go in that order.

There was a lot to see. A LOT! It would take weeks, or even months, to see it all. There are so many exhibits, cafes, and shops to visit. It's a tourist's dream.

It's a very large city. Massive. Many things are spread out, away from the metro stops, forcing one to walk a lot. It's also quite expensive. It was over $10 for a walk through the catacombs, alone, with 84 steps down and 84 steps up. Plus I was almost a mile form where I started. There were very few people who claimed to speak English. Many of the signs, even in the Louvre itself, were only in English. While I don't expect them to put everything in twenty different languages, any touristy spot should have more than one language.

It's also a very dirty city. Graffiti, beggars, and the stench of urine were everywhere.

March 8, Brussels-Zuid

I have another 45 minutes until my train leaves. I must have just missed the last one. As it is, I'll be getting to Amsterdam between 2-3. I plan on leaving around 6 or so. As I was waiting, I had breakfast at Haggen Das. I wish they offered these waffles at home!

Last night was interesting. I got back to Brussels (this same station) and rushed to the closest Leuven train. Big mistake. My train stopped at every station in between. I got back to Leuven at 5:50, ten minutes before I was supposed to meet my friends. I still had to pick up my suitcase, check back into my hostel, drop off my stuff, and run back through the train station to get to the market. As I was walking to the market, I thought I had gotten lost. Turns out I simply hadn't walked as far as I thought I did.

Anyway, I met up with _verbal_ and lorien__ at 6:10 and we then had to walk the rest of the way across town. :-) That's where _verbal_ had parked. Once we got to Brussels, we realized that I had neglected to bring my camera. lorien__ made me buy a disposable. :-)

We had a lot of fun. We ate at Pizza Hut. It had the same crappy service, so I felt at home. I was finally able to try the Pepsi. Don't bother. Just go with Coke in Belgium. :-/ The pizza toppings were a bit different as well. We just offer the standard toppings, but they have local toppings, as long as they'll in season. Next door was a McDonald's. I never thought I would see one that sold beer. :-)

Then we started the real tour. I got to see a lot of interesting things. And we met an American, Andre. Andre was a representative from a bio-diesel corporation in Seattle. He was in town for a conference. The keynote speaker for the conference was Al Gore. Would have been fun running into him. It turned out that Andre was a director for the company [I wasn't able to find a website for it].

Well, to get back to the present, it turns out I'm on the wrong train. I'm still going to the same place, and it was the only one listed as going to Amsterdam, but it requires reservations. And the information desk told me I didn't have to worry about reservations. :-/ Looks like I do for this train. Traveler's Tip: When taking an international train, check with the conductor before boarding. Thankfully, the conductor took pity on the poor, ignorant American and just made sure I knew better for next time. It's kind of interesting, though, how this train goes the same speed as the regular train. The conductor made me feel like an idiot, especially with his off-handed comment in Dutch to the guy next to me, followed by snickers from both of them. :-/

But back to last night. After leaving Brussels proper, we went to the Atomium. It's a giant iron atom that you can go up into during the day. And it's supposed to be lit up at night. Just not the night I was there. I thought it was funny (due to how common something like that was). lorien__ wasn't laughing.

hen we went back to Leuven. It was around 12 or so, so I had to use the night door. I also had at least one roommate who would be sleeping. As it was pitch black in my room, I was as quick and quiet as I could be. Plus I had to make sure _verbal_ had his gift, so I had to go back outside. And, if you recall, I had left everything on my bed. :-) After clearing my bed, I decided to go to bed fully clothed to make sure I didn't bother anyone. After all, if I entered my card into the slot that activated all of the lights that were switched on, I would probably wake up my roommate. My stuff would have been left with him the next day, so I wanted to stay on his good side. After ten minutes or so lying there, my eyes were slightly better adjusted to the dark. I turned my head and saw that the two beds next to me appeared to be empty. I reached up to the upper bunk and felt a bare mattress. I took a chance and turn on the lights. I had been alone the whole time. It looked like Francesco (the guy from Rome) was still there. I was able to finish getting ready for bed properly just before he returned. :-)

March 8, Correct Train, Amsterdam Central Station

This looks more like the national trains I'm used to from Belgium. I hope. Anyway, I'm on my way back. I didn't see or do much, either. The markets were just like the flea markets back home, but offered more in the way of food, porn, and pot. I don't mean that they offered pot, of course, but you could easily recognize the leaf. The African restaurant was a bit too expensive and I was a bit low on cash. If I just had another twenty Euros, I would have had antelope goulash. Another problem was that it was WAY off the beaten path. I walked around a bit looking for it and ended up in a less... touristy area. I also found an old church listed in my guide. Speaking of my guidebook, I found a mistake. It put one of the markets at least half a kilometer away from where it actually was.

Overall Impressions: Amsterdam

Incomplete. I barely saw anything. And I didn't really sample the food. What I did see was interesting. And I saw much of the city on foot. I would like to come back one day with a friend.

I smelled a lot of pot while wandering. And there seemed to be a lot of sex shops. It's not really my kind of town. But I would still like to go back and see some of the museums.

March 10, Brussels International

Yesterday was fun. I spent the entire day with lorien__ and moira__c. As sore as my ankles were from a week's worth of walking, I really enjoyed walking all around Leuven. After all, I'll be calling it home next fall. No, I don't know this for sure, but I think they would have sent out a rejection notice sooner than this.

Anyway, we (lorien__ and I) went to a British store, just a bit outside of town, where I purchased some sherbet lemons. Now if only I could make my eyes twinkle. :-) I also found some clothes for my sister and myself in a couple of stores in Leuven. After a lot of walking, we went to [Bad username: moira__c"]'s place for dinner, movies, and some games. It was mostly to spend time with each other and talk. We had some excellent spaghetti. And some chips that I wouldn't find at home.

(Now I'm on my plane. I have to get my luggage in Dulles, go through customs, re-check my luggage, and re-board my plane. I'm glad they give us plenty of time.)

Getting back to last night, I had a great time with two great friends. I just wish we had had time to watch a movie all the way through and just enjoy it. Maybe next time. Anyway, we skipped through the two movies (Phantom of the Opera and Nightmare Before Christmas) and sung along with some of the songs. Then we played parts of lorien__'s new DVD in German. Robin Hood: Men in Tights never sounded better.

Then we played a Lord of the Rings DVD Trivial Pursuit game. Looks like lorien__ and [Bad username: moira__c"] have a bit of a competition going on. I got two questions correct, which made me very happy.

(Currently flying over England at 32000 ft at several hundred miles per hour. We'll fly over Ireland, Newfoundland, and most of New England before landing at 3:00.)

It was a lot of fun last night. We talked a bit. I doubt lorien__ will forget the name Bob the Shetland Pony any time soon. :-) After 1 AM rolled around, we decided to call it a night... morning.

I didn't have anything to use as an alarm, so I was a bit weary of going to bed and missing my flight. After another episode of groping around in the dark for 30 minutes (am I too nice?), I showered and packed everything. Luckily, I woke up at 7:45.

(I'm having my first American Pepsi since I left. The Coke in Europe was nice (their Pepsi sucked), but this Pepsi tops it.)

Unluckily, I was two minutes late for an hourly train to the airport. After 45 minutes, I got on the train. Twice I thought it was going to leave early (meaning it was the wrong train). I'm about to watch Night at the Museum.

Good movie so far. Boring bit at the moment. Had plenty of time to get on the plane. Bought more stuff for the family at the airport. Just flew over Ireland and had a good lunch. It's -67 degrees F outside the plane. :-)

First movie is over. I'm not sure what to watch next since it changes (it didn't). Right now, though, we're over the Atlantic, directly south of Iceland with about six hours to go. I might get a peek at Greenland later if the clouds clear a bit. For now I'll just listen to Mozart on the radio.

Overall Impressions: Belgium

I've seen three Belgian locations in any great detail: Brussels, Ghent, and, of course, Leuven. I'm not going to include the various train stations I got stuck at.

Ghent: This is a great town to just walk around. It has a historical feel to it (with good reason). I wish I had written this earlier so that it was clearer in my mind. I don't really get the history. Or the art. Or the cultural influence. But I do appreciate them. This city has all three. I just wish I knew more or had more of a personal interest in the area.

Brussels: I only saw this city at night, but I enjoyed what I did see. Seeing it during both day and night would have been better, which I will make a point to do in the fall. All in all, I enjoyed how it was an urban environment without the overly urban appearance of most American cities.

Leuven: As my Belgian friends can attest, I referred to Leuven as 'home' during much of the trip. I'm not sure why this city is calling to me, but I have a few ideas. It seems to have the appeal of both urban and suburban living. The urban look and feel comes from both the relative lack of traffic and the extensive public transportation system.

The suburban/college town feel comes, most obviously, from the local university and the youthfulness of the population. And the multitude of bikes throughout the city. Another important feature of Leuven is that I already have two great friends living there. I just hope that they are both still there in the fall. But I do realize that things can change at a moment's notice. Opportunities arise from nowhere. For example, I'm current;y flying over a frozen portion of Canada. I didn't see this happening a year ago. I wonder if anyone lives down there?

Last but not least is the Master's degree that I would love to earn. And I can take the train or bus to other countries on the weekends. Leuven is a very enjoyable town. I hope I can bring others in my family there, but I can't really see them leaving the States.

The Trip:

a lot has gone into this trip. Resources. The kindness and openness of my friends. The encouragement and understanding of my family. The effort of one man who wanted to try something different. As I fly over what appears to be civilization in Maine, I look back on it and ask: was it worth it? Yes. I met three great people for the first time. I talked to other from even further away. I traveled to a place that my family will likely never see. I handled most things on my own. I may have opened up doors, opportunities that I don't even see yet. I saw weaknesses in my self that I didn't even know existed. I found strengths that hid themselves inside of me.

Veni, Vidi, Vici.

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