Monday, 23 May 2016

europe 2016, day 7: ghent & bruges (may 4)

Second day in Belgium and the plan for today was to take a day trip into the nearby towns of Ghent (forty minutes away from Brussels) and Bruges (twenty minutes away from Ghent). All woke up around 8:40ish, and had the loveliest breakfast in our apartment. A pot of earl grey, cereal, toast, waffles. The feeling of contentment hanging in the air while we ate was palpable. Also, there's something so comforting about our apartment - but maybe it's just the stark comparison to our hostel, which, delightful though it was, did require going outside to a separate shower/bathroom to pee, wash up, etc., and staying huddled in one small room with a single, only mildly effective heater. Now we don't have to go outside to pee - what a luxury!

After we finished breakfast, all in angelic moods, we walked down to Gare du Nord and got tickets for our trip: Brussels --> Ghent --> Bruges --> Brussels. And only 18 euros each, since there's a discount deal for under-26s (which seems like a pretty arbitrary age to me, but I wasn't complaining). Train ride to Ghent was peaceful enough. Tiff slept (so far, she has, quite impressively, managed to sleep on every journey we've taken on public transportation, no matter how short), and Judy and I listened to a sermon by Matt Chandler.

The lady sitting across the aisle from us asked if any of us had an iPhone charger; we said no even though I knew for a fact Tiff had one in her bag and I did too. Does it make us bad people if we want to save our iPhone backup juice for our own phones instead of sharing it with a stranger in need? Possibly. It does make us excellently stereotypical millennials whose greatest fear is their phones dying, however.

When we got to Ghent I was immediately struck by the language difference - no more French or English signs; instead, entirely Dutch and Flemish. Hadn't realized how much I depended even on the French signs in Brussels and how helpful they had been in the absence of English ones. And it was bizarre that we could take a train for forty minutes and emerge in a totally different linguistic environment. Especially when you compare this against a giant country like the U.S., where you can drive across the country from coast to coast and everywhere you stop, people speak English. Europe is a fascinating patchwork, but I'm only just realizing now how tiny some of the patchwork pieces are.

We took a tram into the city center, where Tiff navigated us around (having been responsible for planning this particular day's itinerary), pointing out sundry notable sights she had marked on her map, which Judy and I obligingly stopped to look at. Unfortunately none of us had remembered the night before to do any reading up on Ghent (or Bruges, for that matter), so what exactly we were stopping to look at, we hadn't the faintest idea. Much of our conversation as we stopped at various sights went something like this:

Tiff: So there's a star on my map for this building right here, so we should take a look.

Yurie: What is it?

Judy: It looks like a... monastery?

Tiff: Something... religious.

Judy: Maybe there's a sign somewhere.

Tiff: Alright, let's take a picture.

Yurie: I think this is the Dutch word for "cloister," but I might be making that up.

In spite of our ignorance, it wasn't hard to appreciate Ghent. It's a quaint little town, with street after street lined with beautiful buildings with exquisitely designed rooftops. It's also a lot quieter and mellower than Brussels, and thankfully much flatter. We had a lovely lunch sitting outdoors at a Belgian restaurant called T'oud Clooster - formerly a cloister, although we couldn't actually confirm this given that we couldn't read any of the historical background written on the menu - and then spent some more time just roaming through the streets and window shopping in pretty boutiques that were far too expensive for us.

Ghent is criss-crossed with a lot of waterways and canals, which were lovely, and we took a pleasant little boat tour on which we actually learned a little bit about the history behind various parts of the town. Tiff didn't sleep on this particular journey, for a wonder, but Judy took a nice nap, and Tiff took a nice picture of her taking a nice nap.

After the tour, more meandering, until we found our way to the central-central area, which was filled up by a giant food truck festival that was taking place right next to a giant cathedral, because apparently that's totally normal here. The atmosphere was amazing - carefree, loud, energetic, perfectly happy. Tons of people, which begged the question, "What are all these people doing here in the middle of the day on a Wednesday?" (Never got the answer to that question; it will remain one of the great unsolved mysteries from our trip.)

Walked around some more just enjoying the sights, sounds, and smells - the smells! - until my bladder cried out and we went into a McDonalds to use the bathroom. I climbed the three flights of stairs to reach it, and then stopped short when I walked through the bathroom door. There were three fat old ladies sitting in the tiny passageway between the main door and the separate entrances to the men's and women's restrooms, one on a stool to the side and two others facing each other across a table where they were seemingly playing a board game of some sort. My brain didn't know how to interpret this perplexing scene and I froze, unsure of how and whether or not I should proceed into the ladies' room when one of these women said something to me in Dutch, and then, seeing my confusion, translated, "Forty cents." It slowly registered that the two women at the table were not, as I had thought, playing an ancient game of checkers, but had organized neat piles of coins to give as change for the people passing through and paying this forty cent pee toll. They reminded me of nothing so much as the trolls in fairy tales that live under bridges and collect payment from unsuspecting travelers trying to cross. Possibly the fact that there was not one but three of them, and the fact that they were all so equally squat and large, and parked in such an uncomfortable little space - all of it threw me completely. Judy, who had arrived on my heels, was especially puzzled.

"Did they just set up shop here to make money off of people trying to pee? They don't even look like they're with McDonalds at all..."

After a minute of standing there foolishly, we paid our pee tolls, peed, and came out, still a little dazed by the strange encounter. We then wandered around some more and eventually around 3pm, hopped on a tram back to the train station to go to Bruges. Only a twenty minute ride but Tiff managed to work in another nap - she is a champion napper. It's really quite impressive, her dogged determination to squeeze in sleep at every opportunity she gets, and her success. It reminds me of all those productivity articles you read online, the ones that tell you to use the tiny chunks of free time in your day to accomplish little tasks to maximize productivity - Tiff does that, only with napping.

Bruges looked different from both Ghent and Brussels. Less water, even flatter, somehow, and older-looking buildings. A lot of cathedrals, and rows and rows of quiet streets of pretty little brick houses.

We didn't do too much in Bruges, but I think that suited us all fine as we were rather tired from Ghent. We darted into a chocolate shop, where Judy (and I) finally got her chocolate-covered strawberries; walked around the main square and inspected the menu of every cafe we passed; prowled around a few shops; and then popped in for afternoon sweets at a nice-looking bakery/cafe. Tiff ordered a waffle anticipating another delicious Belgian waffle like those we had had yesterday, only to receive a totally underwhelming bland American waffle instead. She was not pleased. That particular cafe will not be receiving a positive Tripadvisor review from her any time soon.

We spent a good amount of time just talking at the cafe, and then started walking again through some streets we hadn't seen yet. Decided at some point to head back to the station, and just as we had made this decision, found ourselves within five minutes of it purely by accident. Hopped on a train back to Brussels, Tiff knocked out again - this time joined by Judy - and then we were back at Gare du Nord. On our way home we swung by Carrefour to pick up some long-craved cup noodles and other snacks, and Judy and Tiff stopped at a Turkish place to buy a to-go dinner platter that could have fed a small family. Got back at 9 - very impressive for us - settled in, ate our very late dinner, and then had a little movie night watching "The Holiday." It was Tiff's first time watching it, and subsequently her first time being exposed to the good looks and charm of Jude Law, so most of the movie was punctuated by her commentary on how hot he was - so I would say yes, overall a very successful evening.

Wish I had the time or energy to write more about Ghent and Bruges, but I am exhausted, and bed is beckoning. Last day in Brussels tomorrow before - finally - Greece!

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