Apparently thats a movie. I haven't seen it...
05/04/2013 - 05/04/2013 70 °F
When I woke up this morning, I remembered that I had used the last of the eggs yesterday and realized that I had never gone to the store as I had planned. It was probably a good thing, because I just wanted to get on the road, so I grabbed a can of tuna and an apple got ready to go. Just then, Bernd came down and had printed out a bunch of maps for the driving directions to Leuven, which was really thoughtful. He also wanted to check and make sure nothing was wrong with the car as per our conversation about me driving slow the other day. I assured him that while the engine struggled going up hills, I didn’t think anything was wrong with it other than the driver. He insisted, and ended up filling up the tank. It wasn’t necessary, but it was very kind of him. His concern over the engine may have been a ploy to fill up the tank. While he was off “checking the engine,” I decided I might as well eat now instead of on the road. When he got back, I headed for Leuven. I was a bit disappointed to be missing the Saturday morning ritual with Bernd and Elke at the diner in Bonn and the soft-boiled egg I was going to try, but maybe we can find a place to get a soft-boiled egg next weekend in Berlin.
Driving through the EU is so simple. They no longer have border control between countries within the EU, so while you can see where the border control stations used to be, it's as simple as crossing a state line. There is a little jut out of the Netherlands along the route, so I’ve actually been in 3 countries today.
When you first enter a country, they put up a nice sign of all of the standard speed limits (in a town, on a country road, on a highway, etc.) Its pretty nice to have a standardized system. Another curiosity was that every once in a while in both the Netherlands and Belgium, there would be evenly spaced arrows on the road, then a sign like this:
It would show you what the proper spacing is between cars by how many arrows were in between you and the car in front of you. Apparently riding up behind someone is against the law.
When I got to Leuven, I found Chris’ apartment surprisingly easily, save for some construction that made me have to park a few blocks away. I got to meet his wife Kelly and see his apartment, which is brand new. They are the very first tenants. Its basically one big room, but they did a nice job using the entertainment center to separate a little crevice for their bedroom. Chris is about halfway though an 18 month assignment over there through his program at RIT. It’s actually really neat because RIT students in his program have been doing successive 18 month internships out here, so there is a collection of pots, pans, utensils, etc. that get passed down and added to with each tenant. Although he’s doing an internship, since its through RIT, he is on a student visa, which is easier to get. The downside is that because of that, Kelly could only get a visa that piggybacks on Chris’ visa as a spouse. This means that she isn’t able to work. To stay busy, she’s been training for the Brussels marathon to try to qualify for next year’s Boston Marathon with some friends. They also have been traveling all over Europe on weekends and vacations to maximize their time there, so she does a lot of trip planning and travel blogging. I’m so jealous of their little 18-month arrangement! They’ve been to Paris several times, all over Belgium, and countless other places. I was lucky to have caught them on an off weekend, because the next 3 months they have plans to go to Italy when Chris’ parents visit, Ireland with other friends visiting from home and more destinations than I can remember. We didn’t linger for very long before getting back out on the road.
It was a beautiful day, so Chris and I busted out the owners manual to figure out how to pack away the roof for the drive to Bruges. It proved to be pretty easy once we knew where the right levers were. As we pulled out, I asked them which way to Bruges and they had no idea. I had assumed they knew their way there but they had only been by train and they assumed I had printed out the directions. We ended up taking the scenic route, spending a lot of time driving through Brussels rather than passing it on the highway, but the sun was shining and the top was down and it was hard to complain. Brussels is a deceptively large city and at one point, it seemed like the road we were on would never get us back to the highway. We considered abandoning our plans and just doing Brussels for the day, but Kelly encouraged us to push on and I’m glad that she did.
The ride was a nice chance to catch up with Chris. When he first came to Belgium, he bought Rosetta Stone to learn Dutch and studied every day for the first few months. But every time he tried to use Dutch, they could tell he was American and would respond in English, so it ended up being an exercise in futility. He’s enjoying his time out here and they’re making the most of their time with all kinds of fun travelling planned, but he’s looking forward to coming back to Rochester. He really enjoys his internship and is going to see if he could work remotely from Rochester. He said they’ll probably move into an apartment for a few years before buying a house, but Kelly is from Canandaigua and they’re both pretty set on ending up in Rochester. Chris found a soccer league to play in while he is here, and told a funny story about how the team gave him a hard time before the first game making sure he knew the rules and knew it wasn’t American Football. After the game, they had been impressed and told him that they all thought he was “going to suck.” We were trying to figure out that last time we had seen each other and assumed that it was probably at the canoe club during the summer after freshman year of college, which is somehow five and a half years! Unfortunately, with the top down and Kelly in the back, she wasn’t really able to be in the conversation, but she seemed to enjoy the sunshine regardless.
When we finally got to Bruges, it was a bit difficult to find a parking spot and in one instance, we were that annoying car crawling down a mostly pedestrian street. Once we found a spot, we got out of the car to discover what may have deterred other cars from parking there. It was a photography studio with a lot of creepy naked pictures, blown up into poster size. Not really ones that you could convince yourself were artsy either. It was bizarre to see all these giant pictures in the shop window for all to see. Certainly wouldn’t fly at home. Most creepy of all was this naked family. There’s a limit to how close a family should be in my opinion. Not sure exactly where the line is drawn, but its way before you get to posing for naked pictures together.
Thank god they at least covered things up in this picture.
Anyways, none of us had change for the parking meter, so Chris walked into the little grocery store on the corner. It was taking forever, so Kelly and I walked in. What happened was that Chris was caught behind this lady who was doing her grocery shopping for the week. For whatever reason (not sure if it's a cultural thing or was specific to this shop or this lady), this lady didn’t pick everything out and then go to check out like you might expect. Instead, she told the owner what she wanted and he would walk around and get everything for her. It wasn’t just the meats or things like that that needed to be wrapped up, but also the apples, bananas and vegetables that you would thing she could just grab. Regardless, it was a cute little store that was well merchandised and had an impressive amount of variety.
It was great to have tour guides around Bruges. Its one of Chris and Kelly’s favorite cities in Belgium and they knew all the places to hit. I didn’t even need the list or the directions I had written out last night. Bruges has a very relaxed vibe and looks a lot like Amsterdam, with countless canals and bridges, with plenty of postcard-worthy photo ops.
It was a bit early for a beer, but Chris still had to take me to the “Wall of Beer” Bar. It was a bit off the main strip and the entire alley to get to the bar was lined with thousands upon thousands of Belgian beers.
Chris explained that each beer made in Belgium also has a special glass that is made for it. Each beer bottle was displayed with its own glass. There was an impressive amount of creativity that went into the glasses and each one was truly unique. Chris has been on a quest to try as many as he can and started to tell me about a few favorites he recommended trying. The beer that seemed to be most popular at the bar was Kwak, which came in a glass that looked kind of like those long thin glasses you can get in the Caribbean and were served with a wooden stand for stability. Apparently its called Kwak because if you drink it too quickly, it bubbles up when the little ball at the bottom empties and it makes a kwak sound and spills all over you.
It was about lunchtime, so we went to the Friteria 1800, which has Kelly’s favorite fries in Belgium. Fries are huge here. They are served with EVERYTHING and there are street vendors that just sell fries. They also eat them with mayonnaise instead of ketchup. Chris was laughing that he had been eating pretty healthy back at home and working out but that it is impossible to do here. This was the selection of things to eat at the friteria. Usually you can go to a restaurant and at least find a few things that you at least recognize, but that was not the case at the Friteria. Even with English translations, it was tough to tell what a “Kip Nugget,” “Mexicano” or “Bitter Ball” was. Chris could offer translations of different meats, but most didn’t say what the meat was. I ended up getting a couple kebabs of mystery meat that I think may have been pork.
Kelly had saved us a seat upstairs right at the window overlooking the Markt (the main square in Bruges). Quite the view for a little hole in the wall. I’m no fry expert, but I had a few of Kelly’s to see what the buzz was all about.
They seem pretty much the same as American ones, although the homemade sauce Chris had was very good (I didn’t go for the traditional mayo). Chris and I then headed off across the square to the Belfry to climb to the top. I also love this flag. It's the flag of Bruges and I would have bought one if I could have found it.
Kelly stayed behind at the Friteria to enjoy the view and the free wifi. It was really funny to me that the restaurant had free wifi, but you had to pay 50 euro cents to use the bathroom. Kelly also mentioned that she and Chris had tried climbing to the top of the Belfry before but that the stairway got so narrow halfway up that she got claustrophobic and had to turn around and tell Chris to take good pictures. As we were walking through the courtyard to buy tickets, Chris was surprised because the line usually extends well into the courtyard. Soon we found out why…it was unfortunately closed. In the courtyard however was a funny little one man band playing what looked like grill covers (or inverted steel drums), plus bells around his ankles, PLUS a didgeridoo. It was bizarre but I had to give him points (and some change) for uniqueness.
Kind of like Amsterdam or Venice, most of the fun of Bruges is just walking around the canals and enjoying the sights.
They even knew this one walkway off the beaten path that gave a great view of the city. Did I mention how nice it was having personal tour guides?
I felt like a nuisance slowing them down to take pictures every 5 minutes, but Kelly assured me that she is the same way when they’re in a city for the first time. I was able to get a few nice pictures of them and they took a few of me, which is nice since I’m in barely any of the pictures from this trip since I’m a littler lonerman.
As we were walking around Bruges, Chris was telling me about having seen construction projects where the entire house is torn down except the façade, which is propped up then built around to maintain the scenery that makes the streets of Bruges so beautiful. So even though all of these houses look centuries old, many of them are quite modern inside. No sooner did he finish his story that we turned a corner and saw one. Very neat.
In the interest of trying to have them experience at least something new, we wandered over to a castle on the water that ended up being a fancy restaurant that they wanted to come back to. On the way back, we passed through the Begijnhof, a small community where nuns used to live and cultivate the garden. There was was a small wedding going on. The couple and the half dozen guests were surrounded by thousands of flowers. They couldn’t have timed the wedding day any better. There were literally hundreds of flower beds like this. We all thought that those tall flowers were a funny little cross between a flower and a palm tree.
On our way out, I finally got a good picture of one of several dozen horse and carriages we had seen roaming the streets throughout the day. Kind of like their overpriced, tourist transportation instead of the Venetian Gondolas.
EVERYTHING shut down at 5pm as we were clearing out of Bruges. Chris even said that the Belgian workweek is 38 hours long so that people can have 2 hours a week to leave work to go grocery shopping since nothing is open past 5pm. We hit the road to head back to Leuven (a much quicker trip this time around), stopping at home for jackets before going out for a walk around Leuven then to dinner. Leuven is a beautiful little town in its own right.
I’ve also got to hand it to Leuven for having open-air (and free!) urinals! I could get used to this!
We also passed through their main square, Oude Markt.
In one of their first weekends in Belgium, there had been an open-air concert in the square that they raved about.
The Stadhuis (town hall) in Leuven was pretty incredible as well. One of the most intricate buildings I had seen. We passed by here again after dinner and it was breath taking when lit up at night, but the phone pictures didn’t do it justice.
The took me to De Wiering, which is their favorite restaurant to take guests to in Leuven. There was a bit of a wait, which is surprisingly rare in Europe, despite the fact that everyone stays for hours, so while we waited, Chris gave me the rundown of beers. I ended up going with his favorite, Trappistes Rochefort. There are a handful of “Trappist” beers that are actually made by Trappist monks and are known for being especially strong (even by Belgian standards.) This particular Trappist beer was 10.8% alcohol, almost as much as a glass of wine! It was also unbelievably good, and of course had its own custom glass to top it off!
I had been asking about typical Belgian food, and it turns out that they are crazy about stew, so that’s what I had to have. It was a pretty satisfying, hearty meal.
The table next to us also had some foreigners and it was interesting to watch them try to converse with the waitress in English. You see this all over Europe…two people who don’t speak the same language and instead revert to trying to speak English, despite the fact that it’s neither person’s first language. We’re so lucky that almost everyone has at least a basic understanding of English, because we would be screwed otherwise.
After driving for the whole day (and getting a bit lost), I hadn’t let them pay for gas so they ended up paying for my dinner, despite protests that I owed them for being great tour guides. Chris asked for the bill in Dutch and explained that the literal translation for the check/bill at a restaurant is “the reckoning.” Love it.
After dinner it was dark so they took me on the scenic route all around town before heading home. They’re my kind of travellers! All around Belgium, people tend to put a lock around their bike wheels so that they can’t be ridden off but don’t find it necessary to lock it to anything stationary. The exception is in Leuven, where a bike that isn’t locked to anything ends up in the river courtesy of the students. We passed by one such unfortunate bike on our way home.
A few blocks before their apartment, I had to take a picture of Asstraat.
It may have been the Rochefort, because this seemed a lot funnier at the time. After a lot of walking, we were all beat and turned in for bed.