Well, the 72 hours I spent in Bruges were…
(prepare yourself for the 8,000 words that follow this statement)
…covered in a lot of confetti. You’ll see what I mean.
Sitting in my apartment in Dublin feels really nice after being on the move pretty much non-stop over the past three days. My roommates are in class, so I have the place to myself for now. They’re going to hate me when they get home because there was a giant black spider crawling on the floor and I didn’t kill it. Should be fun when one of them finds it later.
If Bruges isn’t on your travel list, you should reconsider. Belgium is known for its waffles, genital-shaped chocolates, and beer, but there’s a lot more going on in this tiny country than just that. For example…
A few positive words about Ryanair
From my experiences both on the flight there and back, Ryanair is not as bad as people say it is. And this comes from someone who had to get up at 3:00 am to catch a 6:30 am flight. Sure they’re a discount airline that will charge you 45 euro if you don’t print your tickets ahead of time, and yes they’re trying to violate our human rights by charging people to use the in-flight bathroom, but really it was all quite pleasant. The lines to check-in weren’t long, the seats had enough space under them for my full backpack. My only real complaint – other than the nauseating choice of music they play pre-flight – is that they board all at once so that the plane gets jammed up and we’re delayed taking off. But hey, at least Europe has a discount airline. I paid less than 100 euro both ways to go to Belgium; I would pay four times as much at least to fly from VA to NY, which is a similar distance.
Brussels Airport: Mecca for assault rifles
Why were there so many men in uniform with assault rifles casually standing around? And why did they patrol the train platform like they were going to shoot at any moment?? Also, a note on the toilet paper in Belgium: these people have it figured out. Seriously. All their toilet paper comes off in rectangle pieces, two of which make the perfect amount per wipe and reduce waste. A+ Belgium. Only having two stalls in the entire woman’s bathroom? Needs work.
A (stolen) first-class train ride
Our flight was into Brussels, the capital of Belgium (and the European Union), but our destination was on the far west side of the country in Bruges. Luckily, the train station was in the airport. Belgium is the first country I’ve ever been to that doesn’t speak English as a first language, and this figured prominently in my experience over the next few days. It became very apparent as a train pulled up and we couldn’t read the words on the sign telling us where it was going that we seriously take for granted the prominence of the English language on the world stage. We got on the train hoping it was the right one and sat in a compartment with booths of four seat around a table. It wasn’t particularly glamorous, but it was nice to be on our way. About twenty minutes in to the ride, the ticket-man came around and promptly gave us the boot. Evidently we were sitting in first class (is this how the other half lives? Maybe we’re not missing anything after all) and had to drag our luggage through three cars to find some seats that were sorta close together. I read basically the whole time even though we’d woken up at 3:00 am. The countryside was very much like countryside in other countries. Plus I was reading about feminism and race politics while half-watching the tourists next to me Skype a baby. None of the stop announcements were made in English, but luckily the last stop of the whole ride was the one we wanted, so it’d be pretty hard to miss.
Cobblestones: the real enemy
They might look pretty, but cobblestones are the devil. Don’t trust them. If you have to someday choose between spending a day pulling a suitcase down endless cobblestone streets or baking cookies for Lucifer, BAKE THE DAMN COOKIES. Dramatics aside, the cobblestone streets of Bruges add a lot to the feel and beauty of the small city, but I never realized how nice smooth, boring, gray sidewalks were until I had to drag a suitcase against cobblestone ones for 40+ minutes. My poor little wheels on my new luggage are all scuffed white now and stopped working at intervals, so I was basically dragging a dead body behind me all day (just kidding, my bag was full of rice).
An American brings a water bottle into a restaurant…
…and is immediately told to put it away so that I would be forced to buy a 2 euro glass bottle of water that holds about three swigs worth of very nice water, bottled by none other than Coca Cola because you can’t escape American consumerism no matter how hard you try. I got my revenge by secretly drinking from my bag when the fancy glass bottle ran out. Take that Belgium.
That time I accidentally went to church
One of the coolest parts of this trip was how frequently we stumbled (literally on those cobblestones) into unexpected places. The first thing we did after dropping our luggage off at Snuffel Hostel was to wander down the main road into town. Massive cathedrals can be found every few blocks, and the first we came to opened its doors the moment we walked up to it. Another couple entered and, curious, we followed, not sure what we were going to find. Turns out we were in Saint James Cathedral, and it proved to be my favorite church we saw in Bruges. The cathedral ceilings were amazing, and the organ we found along the back wall was massive and ornate. Jess and I both went into a confessional booth for the first time – an empty one of course – and it was a little eerie. I was definitely not feeling like confessing all my sins in the dark little corner hidden behind velvet drapes. We didn’t want to leave, but we had so much more of the city to see in only three days. It didn’t seem possible to see everything we wanted to see in so short a time (spoilers: we didn’t just see the city, we freaking conquered it. Jk, jk, please don’t come after me military men with your assault rifles).
Christ’s blood looks like moldy spaghetti
And I say that with utmost respect. After Saint Jame’s Cathedral, we wandered to the main market square, which is way more beautiful and ornate in person. Everywhere there’s something beautiful to look at. From there we made our way to the Burg, which is another smaller square. It also happens to be home to the Basilica of the Holy Blood. The church was free to go into, and it was stunning. We couldn’t take photos, so here’s one I stole online.
There were a small hand-full of people sitting in chairs, paying their respects. For us, this was a beautiful display of architecture. For others, it was a place of worship. I didn’t even know where to look, there was just so much. I would walk into one part of the room and then walk back to another and notice something massive that I hadn’t seen before. After about 10 minutes, there was an announcement in Dutch, French, and then English saying that for a donation, we could all go up and pray to the vile holding Christ’s blood, as legend has it. I felt a little out of place going up as someone who hasn’t prayed in ten years, but I dug some change out of my pocket and looked at the vile for a solid 3 seconds before escaping from the church-man-religious-figure-guy who was watching over the vile. The blood looked like moldy spaghetti. I’m not kidding. It was still liquid, but there were definitely some chunks or Parmesan growing in there too. I think the church-man-religious-figure-guy knew we weren’t praying, but he said nothing because we’d donated.
What to know how much I paid to see Christ’s blood? 7 cents. I am a terrible person.
While we were on our way out, the guy manning the counter told a man walking in to take his hat off, at which point I reached up to my own head and took my brand new super cute wool one I got earlier off. He told me it was only for the guys and when I asked him why, he had to think about it for a moment. Then he said, “Feminism?” I couldn’t help but smile.
You know something is wrong when the most memorable part of a museum is the massive male bulge all the wooden statues had
Next, we took our mature and world-traveling selves to a museum which I can’t even remember the name of now because it wasn’t memorable and was in Dutch. The whole place was basically one very cold room that had lots of paintings and a massive wooden mantel piece with elaborate statue work and a fireplace large enough that I could fully stand up in it. We had iPods, which gave us a tour in English of what all the different paintings and statues meant. The place used to be a court for Bruges, if I’m not mistaken, which I usually am. I’m not lying when I say the most interesting thing about the place was the design choice of the male statues’ crotches. They were bulging horizontally, straight out from their bodies like swollen baby watermelons. Why? Why? Why?
366 steps and all I got was a fantastic view of of Bruges
Next, we climbed the Belfort, which is a medieval bell tower right on the town center. You can see it from basically anywhere in Bruges. The ordeal involved 366 steps, broken up by well-spaced exhibits along the way, which were just excuses to get our heaving under control. We climbed in only fifteen minutes, and from the top we had a view of the entirety of Bruges. As evidenced from the top of this large tower, the steps up to which get thinner and thinner as you climb until they are basically 95% vertical footholds, the city is full or reds, oranges, and pinks. All the roofs are orange and their are soft pink accents and step gables everywhere. The cobblestone streets are a deep red, which symbolizes the bloodshed caused to all the tourists’ suitcase wheels. While we were looking out on the city, the bells that were literally within touching distance went off. It was LOUD but beautiful. Jess’ face was quite priceless when the first bell tolled. The good news is we didn’t fall down the winding stairs on the way back. Would you laugh if we had?
When I reached the bottom, my bladder was swelling bigger than Kanye West’s ego. I asked the lady behind the counter where the bathroom was and she directed me around the corner where I. realized. that. I. had. to. pay. 50 cents doesn’t seem like much, but I’ve never had to pay to pee before. How is this ethical?? Not everyone can afford to pay but everyone has to pee, and some people who have bladder conditions (like me) have to pee more than other people and it’s all just wildly unfair. The bathroom didn’t even have paper towels. Grr.
Cultural immersion pro-tip: always ask for butter recommendations
Some people go to foreign countries and order the wine or a fancy meal of the local delicacy. Me, I go to foreign countries solely to try the butter. There is no other reason I travel. Not a single one.
When we went to the grocery store to find said butter, I realized rather quickly that all the ingredients were in Dutch. Because I can only have unsalted butter, learning the word for “unsalted” was really important. Jess had looked up the word for butter, but I’d overlooked the need for any other descriptive words for butter. So I asked the lady standing nearby the butter is she spoke English, which was probably the dumbest question I asked all weekend. I didn’t meet one person who didn’t speak at least some English. She was a good sport about it though, and helped me decipher the words for salted and unsalted. I quickly found a cylinder of butter called Brugge, and she complimented me on my taste in butter. She got one for herself as well. And let me tell you, THAT WAS THE BEST BUTTER I’VE EVER HAD.
A brief example of why America is failing us
At the hostel that night – exhausted from our 3 am wake up time, extensive travel, and sight-seeing – we ate in the communal kitchen. Let me tell you, I’ve only been in two hostels now, but this one seemed really nice. The rooms themselves were pretty sterile with only a few pops of color, the communal spaces were a mix of library chic and coffeshop chill. There was a big bar, a collection of restaurant tables and chairs, plus some sofas in the main room. Down the hall was a study with books, a computer, and a giant chessboard attached to the large kitchen, which had two sinks and three ranges. We would later learn of the secret room next door suspiciously labeled “Snuffel Hall,” but no spoilers for now.
Now, to rag on America I would like to tell you about the two young women I met while eating my delicious butter and rice. They were both from Chile and were well-traveled in comparison to me. They seemed so worldly, like they knew secrets that I didn’t even though they were only a year older than me. I think a large part of this impression came from their ability to seamlessly slip between Spanish, French, and English, sometimes all within the same sentence. I didn’t meet a single non-American person who wasn’t bilingual all weekend. We are seriously the only ones. Okay, not the only ones, but for a country with such a massive cultural reach, you’d think Americans would be able to speak more than one language like so much of the rest of the developed world. There’s not enough pressure to learn another language; the government and school boards don’t take language studies seriously enough. Part of this could be that the US is all English-speaking. Europe is made of countries smaller than our states all right next to each other and they all have their own language, which encourages people to learn more than one.
Sitting across from those young women, I felt very small. There’s a reason people rag on Americans. There’s a reason people think we’re stupid and lazy and loud. Want to feel every atom of your privilege? Travel. Want to live in a cloud believing that America will be a dominant superpower forever even with the appalling lack of value we place in education so we can instead spend valuable resources arguing over what a woman can and cannot do with her own body? Vote for Trump.
If you’re still reading this, major kudos to you. I’ve written about day one so far and I’m already at over 2500 words. You deserve a cookie and unfortunately I don’t have cookies and since I can’t eat them myself, would be way too bitter to give you one even if I did.
Remember when I said we stumble a lot? Well, we fell through a magic portal and landed in…
…another cathedral, totally unplanned. This was was under construction, as several places were since we visited in the off-season, so we didn’t see it in its full glory. The main drawing feature of Saint Saviour’s Cathedral was the amazing organ that stretched from floor to the top of the cathedral ceiling. There were tombs under the church visible through glass on the floor, which were pretty neat. The pesky attendant lady must have thought we were suspicious because she followed us around until we finally left. It’s like they can smell the fact that I haven’t believed in God since I was ten or something.
Madonna, you are beautiful
Except the Madonna I’m talking about is 500 years old, not 50-something. Yet again in our ineptitude to walk in a straight line stumbled into another cathedral. Except this one was also a museum, and was so cold inside that all the workers had individual heat lamps and nice parkas. We’d purchased the museum pass for 15 euro, which ended up saving us enough money to buy a hefty amount of butter, so it wasn’t a problem to go in the museum and see what it was all about. We rounded the corner and there was a very large and ornate wood piece – not a mantel per say, but a large piece of wooden art. I don’t know, look at the picture if you actually want to know what it looks like. The real point of this piece was what sat right in the middle: a statue on a lady with a baby. I looked at it and thought, big deal.
But then I looked at it a little closer, and a little closer still. It was quite far away and held back by red ropes. Then it hit me: Is that Michelangelo’s “Madonna and Child”? I asked Jess, and she looked at it more closely and then it hit her too. We knew where we were at that moment, the Church of Our Lady. I immediately felt bad for wondering what the big deal was; it was a big deal. I’ve read about how Hitler’s forces stole the Madonna during WWII, along with many other precious works of art so that Hitler could be become the greatest art collector ever for Germany. The Madonna was kidnapped rather brutally, but upon recovery, it turned out the Madonna was okay. She was restored and returned to her place in Church of Our Lady where I saw her. I wish we could have gotten closer, but once I knew the story of the statue I was looking at, the experience was meaningful. That goes to show you how important stories are to the way we make meaning of what we see in the world.
I’ve been spelling it Groenigge this whole time and I’ve been very, very wrong
It’s actually called the Groeninge Museum, so I suppose I wasn’t too far off. No, never mind. I spent three days in Bruges and I still can’t tell you with any confidence how to say that word. When people ask about it, I mutter some things under my breath and do all in my power to avoid pronouncing it. As though the bag attendant at the museum could smell my fear, he hounded us about leaving our bags in the lockers before entering the exhibit for fear we would…what? Steal a Jan van Eyke? Shove one of the little art guides that are nothing more than laminated sheets of paper with translated English and lots of grammar mistakes? This guy was insistent though, so we did our part. When he noticed my water bottle was not also shoved in the locker, he felt no impediment to letting me know that it was not allowed. I uttered the words “medical condition” and he looked like I’d smacked him, which I suppose I did. He said, curtly, “I will have to inform my colleagues” and then he actually disappeared to inform said colleagues of my medical condition. As a result, not one of the many staff in the exhibit said a word to me. I was a bit creeped out thinking about the thoughts they were having about me. Oh look, there’s the girl with the “medical condition.” I wonder what kind of “medical condition” she has. Maybe if she stops drinking water she’ll shrivel up and become a toad? Or she’s addicted to hold her water bottle. Is that a thing? Can people fall in love with their water bottle? I wonder if she’ll carry a water bottle down the aisle when she gets married. WHAT IF SHE MARRIES HER WATER BOTTLE?
To be fair, this museum should really be called “All the Madonnas and their Children” because there were so many paintings of Mary with infant baby Jesus. But there were also a couple paintings by Hans Memling and Jan van Eyke (who is a man but for as long as I could manage it, held onto the hope that he was a woman), arguably two of the most famous Flemish painters ever. I particularly like Eyke because he paints with an incredible realism and I find paintings that look like photographs to be astonishing. My favorite series of paintings in the exhibit, though, was a collection of paintings that were designed to be up for interpretation. The painter would paint seemingly random scenes and it was up to the viewer to create the story. If I had more time, I could have used some of them as writing prompts. It was a very welcome change of pace from the portraits of white men and paintings of infant baby Jesus. Also kudos to the one painting that portrayed two of the wise men as African. They accounted for 85% of the African representation in paintings in the museum. The free postcards in the gift shop of Madonna with Child did not make up for this.
Don’t go to the Memling Museum expecting to see any paintings by Hans Memling
Rip off. Except we didn’t pay to get in because of our life-saving museum passes. And it wasn’t actually bad, but I was admittedly disappointed that there were no paintings by Memling. Why call it the Memling Museum? Oh, to lure in the unknowledgable tourists? Makes sense. The man at the counter gave me even more trouble than the man at the Groeninge Museum, and that’s saying something. He tried to take my water bottle from him and when I dropped the all-powerful phrase “medical condition,” he looked at me like I was a thieving liar planning on dousing a precious painting with water or worse, vodka. He insisted that I hide the bottle in my backpack with utmost discretion so that “other people wouldn’t try anything.” When I went to put my backpack on my back, where it clearly belongs if you do a Harvard-level analysis of the word “backpack,” he said I had to either wear it on one shoulder or carry it so that I didn’t back that ass into any precious paintings, causing my water bottle to spontaneously explode and douse the entire place with my vodka-water.
So what did I do? Certainly not what he said; do you even know me? If I couldn’t wear it on my back, I’d wear it on my front like a little baby in a sling. So that’s what I did. Photographic proof can be seen below.
The real sight to see in this museum was the building itself, which had marvelous exposed brick and dark wood beams that stretched all across the ceiling. The ambient lighting was too dark at times to properly see the art, our favorite of which included a painting of a man staring off at (who I suppose was) the painter while stabbing a small child in the eye with a needle. My personal favorite was a very ornate house with murals painted on the walls and roof. On one panel of the mural, there’s a woman with her hand up in the air as if to the man who’s aiming a bow and arrow at her. She ain’t got time for any of his shit, and I loved it. Yay feminism from the 15th (or some other significantly older than the present) century. It was here in this museum that we decided we were going to make it a six museum day, an amazing feat. If you ask my feet, though, the story is a bit different: “God dammit will you please just SIT DOWN FOR FIVE MINUTES.” No I will not.
The Archaeology Museum, which was more like a fun house without excess mirrors
We knew this was going to be kid-geared, but we went anyway because free admission and college loans. Thanks Obama. The museum was delightfully colorful and interactive, with lots of sand and fake bones and microscopes. There was also a lot of climbing over small bridges and ducking under short doorways, but it was all par for the course. My favorite part was the Belgian cooking show with Dutch subtitles that had the funkiest dance music. I couldn’t help but bust a movie in the plastic kitchen. The one thing I found very odd was the total lack of written information on the walls about any parts of the exhibit. It didn’t matter what language you spoke, there was no explanation for anything, which made it all the more odd and fun. The only English I managed to find in the whole joint was a sign that said “Don’t open the window.” Very educational.
Thank the Sisterhood of the Travelling Ovaries that I didn’t live during Medieval times: a screenplay about torture devices
For the record, it’s a running joke between my roommates and I that we are not the Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants, but rather the Travelling Ovaries. Get it? We’re travelling and we..have…ovaries. Haha. This came from the meetup.com listing we saw for a woman’s club dedicated to worshiping menstrual cycles. All praise the ovary gods.
We went to a torture museum. Why? Because why not. The guy behind the counter was cute and it only cost 5 euro each. We were expected some truly awful wax figures and chains laying everywhere with no explanation. While there were plenty of awful wax figures laying around, making expressions of true wax agony, the museum was quite good. It was bigger than expected with lots of authentic looking torture devices and descriptions of how and why they were used. There was even a history of torture and a discussion of human rights across the globe.
The highlights of the devices themselves were:
- A breast/testicle ripper – they would heat the metal and then use the clamp-like device to rip off the flesh of a woman’s breasts or a man’s testicles.
- The iron spined horse – this rocking chair gone wrong was designed with a pronounced ridge right where the genitals sit so that extreme pain would be felt upon prolonged sitting.
- The male chastity belt – because, you know, equal rights.
- The rat trap – a metal bowl was placed over a rat, which sat on a man’s bare chest. The metal bowl would be heated, baking the rat and forcing it to find the only way out: through the man’s flesh.
- The toenail ripper-offer – they would often heat the metal clamps for adding pain. They would also slowly hammer pieces of metal under your fingernails to get you to confess whatever it was you probably didn’t actually do.
- The metal bull – someone actually had to build this giant metal bull with the sole intention of putting a man inside, placing the bull over a fire, and roasting him alive. Sick people out there.
Most of the punishment I saw were for adultery, abortion, masturbation, or homosexuality because, you know, these are the true banes of any sexually repressed society. Not that I’m condoning adultery. Not that it’s any of my damn business what you do or don’t do with someone else’s wife/husband/lover.
Here’s the slow motion scene from any movie where a woman traveled the world with her friends and strange things wouldn’t stop happening
As we were finishing up at the museum, we heard a very loud booming up at street level. We asked the guy at the desk what was going on and he said a parade of some sort. We climbed up out of the dungeon onto a scene straight out a movie. The street was covered in confetti and there was music vibrating through the cobblestones and floats with American characters in mass. We’re talking five people dressed as Woody from Toy Story and more than ten dressed as the Hunchback of Notre Dame and his love interest Esmeralda. The looks on our faces was of utter shock and delight. We simply could not believe that we’d actually stumbled – as we do so well – straight into a parade we’d known nothing about. It seemed way to good to be true, the timing too perfect. My mouth was still agape when the first hand-full of confetti was launched at my face. Luckily my hat caught most of it. People were throwing bags of chips and lollipops with vicious force, but all in good fun of course. We came up near the end of the parade, so we only saw about five minutes of it, but it was so much fun. Things like this aren’t supposed to happen in real life, and yet…
Don’t you worry, the waffle man quickly broke up what fun we were having. We were standing in his shop doorway because there was no where else to stand, and as soon as the last float passed, he came out and told us to “get out of my doorway! shoo!” Needless to say we didn’t buy waffles from him. I’m still finding confetti in my socks. It turns out the parade was a Martigra-sort of parade celebrating the last week before lent, where people would have to stop eating good food. Or something like that, I don’t know man. All I know is that the parade was supposed to be the week before, but something happened, though no one really knows what. And somehow, somehow, we happened to be there. It’s like the parade gods were waiting to bestow us with their confetti-love.
Floor meatball meets bathroom banana in a another stunningly lovely building
The Brugge Museum was yet another place with tall ceilings, elaborate murals, deep hues of red and gold, and lots of history. The massive building, right on the Burg square, used to be an alderman’s chamber. I have no idea what this means, but whoever this alderman was, he must have been high and mighty. I read the entire laminated sheet of information about the museum, which is more effort than I will generally spend on such endeavors. The murals were completed by two brothers, though this wasn’t the plan. The death of the first brother spawned the need to have a new painter to finish the 9-year-long mural project. Luckily, some families have literally all the talent (like, share please) and his brother, an equally good painter, finished the job.
But the real story with this museum was what happened in the bathroom, and unfortunately it’s not even a very good story. Courtney and I went to the bathroom, me to pee and her to clean the confetti off her face. I, of course, went into the stall with no toilet paper and, of course, there was no crack under or over the door for Courtney to deliver me the prized squares of bliss. So I had to open the stall door in this fancy-ass museum. She gave me paper towel, not toilet paper, but what can a beggar do but take what’s given? I was kind enough to put some paper in the stall for the next lady. As I was waiting for Courtney to clean her face, I decided that moment was the perfect one to eat a supremely brown and mushy banana I’d been carrying around Bruges with me. Courtney, kindly, didn’t judge and instead photographed the moment for posterity. She called in my “bathroom banana” and I just hoped to God no one walked in to see me in my weakened state. I told you this was not a good story, but I laugh every time I think about it. Maybe they were pumping something weird through the vents.
In the museum itself, I then found out about floor meatball. I was shocked that this was the first time I was hearing about floor meatball because it’s hilarious and I can’t believe Jess and Courtney forgot to tell me. You see, they both went off on a walk by themselves on the first night while I stayed behind and wrote about the day. Apparently, they stopped at a little food shop to get Courtney some dinner. Courtney made “friends” with a group of guys there and one of them happened to drop a meatball during the conversation. Mind you, this was not a sit-down restaurant, but basically a Belgian Rallies that served weird food like fried gravy-filled meatballs and chicken patties shaped like mustaches. As soon as the guys left, Courtney thought it a prime opportunity to pick the meatball off the floor, where it had been for at least a minute by then, and yes…she freaking ate it. The guy behind the counter could not stop laughing. And Courtney had the audacity the next night to go back and order more meatballs, at which time the man behind the counter told her she didn’t have to eat these off the floor. I am ashamed to say that my experience in the Brugge Museum revolved around these two completely unrelated and culturally insignificant moments. I also managed to stain one of the fancy chairs with some grit on the bottom of my water bottle. It’s probably fine.
(I’m sorry to report there are no photos of floor meatball because Courtney ate it.)
We bought Abbie a chocolate willy because Belgium is known for its genitalia-shaped chocolate
We learned this fun fact from Jess’ grandmother. We saw the evidence for ourselves in a shop window near the main square. Choices include willies of varying sizes and colors, breasts with ample cleavage, or a woman’s ass and thighs. You can also buy adorable bunnies, sheep, and puppies, but no one cares about these things when genitalia is also available. The man behind the counter didn’t bat an eye when we asked for the male bits, laughing as he said, “Oh, the girls want the chocolate willy?” Indeed we did. We all put in 2 euros and bought Abbie a small partially-hollow dark chocolate willy that even has textured bits on the testicles to simulate actual testicles. Where do they come up with this stuff? The real gem of this encounter was that the shopkeeper assumed we were Brits, accusing us of bringing the rain over with us. We didn’t correct him because it was nice not to be accused of being an American for once because yes, being an American is something to be accused of here. Donald Trump: that’s all you need to know. Oh you’re from America? You must love Donald Trump. Hope you’re ready for the apocalypse because your country will literally bring death to all of us. It’s difficult to make friends when this is what people think of us. Thanks Donald. Please go crawl in a hole and don’t come out until after the election cycle is over.
For the record, Abbie loves her chocolate “member.” She refuses to eat it in fact. She has other plans for it, perhaps?
Hostels are full of secrets and people who can insult you in more languages than you can count
I don’t know what most hostels are like, but I swear we picked the one hostel in the world that is just freaking bizarre. We were all in the kitchen preparing some dinner when we heard a band warming up. I’d heard drums the night before, but didn’t think much about it. In the study attached to the kitchen, there was this big black square of glass between the bookshelves; it looked like a window to nowhere. Turns out, it’s a window to the secret room where they keep a full concert hall. We’re talking full light, sound, and bar facilities with a stage and lots of sweaty bodies and beer all over the floor. The real deal. We didn’t get the memo, but the hostel was having a concert that night because why the hell wouldn’t they? Duh. Don’t all hostels have full concert halls and host loud events without warning? We had a perfect seat for hearing the music without the crowd in the kitchen. There were several bands that played, but my favorite had to be the rapper who had some pretty sweet lyrics. When you’re older, I’ll tell what they were; I wrote them in the sacred space at the back of my notebook so I would never forget them and their beauty.
After eating, Jess and I met Courtney near the front of stage in the concert hall – mystifyingly called “Snuffel Hall” as though that name could convey the magic held within. IT smelled like European body odor and IPA, but we got used to it pretty soon. Most people were speaking Dutch, and most people were frighteningly attractive as people in Europe seem to be. I felt very out of place, which I do in 100% of social situations with people my own age. The last band was warming up and soon left the stage so they could reenter to a cloud of smoke without shirts on and chests donning glow paint happy faces and choice words. As it turns out, the words “fuck you” are universal. No matter what language people speak, they know and enjoy using “fuck you” and often it’s the only words I can understand. I also enjoyed the poorly drawn glow-paint penises that covered the band’s sign behind the stage. They spoke to the crowd of about 100 people in Dutch but sang exclusively in English, and I swear at one point they were laughing at all the people in the room who couldn’t speak Dutch. We started laughing a beat too late. Damn you America and your insistence to make me a cultural pariah. It stinks to be the butt of every joke.
“The Big Sleep” is exactly what we wished for the drunk fool from the Netherlands
The thing about hostels is that the cheapest rooms are always those that you share with other strangers; in our case, 3 (3+3=6). Our room also happened to be multi-gender because you have to pay extra if you want to feel safe. After the first night, our roommates from Uzbekistan (I’ve never met anyone from Uzbeckistan!) and some other mystery place left, so we got two new roommates for the second night. Our sixth roommate, Joe from Dublin, stayed another night and we were okay with this even though he snored like a freight train. We were less okay walking into the room to find him half-naked, but what are you gonna do?
So our two new roommates. They were from the Netherlands. One of them spoke English well, but didn’t talk to us. The other spoke poor English and insisted on speaking to us at length about things we couldn’t understand. We named the first man, “Guy Who Doesn’t Help,” and I’m sorry to report that this name withstood for the entirety of our knowing each other. The second man we named, “Creepy Guy,” and I’m doubly sorry to report that this name also withstood the night.
Creepy Guy insisted on shaking our hands and giving us several high-fives. I’m disgusted to report that he gave us hugs that made us feel very uncomfortable but we didn’t know how to tell him to get the eff out. Through the course of our ten minute “conversation,” he spoke of making an agreement. It took us five minutes of this ten minute “conversation” to help him find the word “agreement” in English. In this agreement, it was decided that we would not party or have mass amounts of people, sex, or drugs in the room at any time. No such agreement was made on his side. He asked us if he could smoke in the room and we weren’t even sure how to answer because no, it’s 2016 prick, you can’t smoke inside. We we told him we’d be back in an hour, he asked us “jokingly” if we could stay out longer, presumably so he could bang-bang, but we said no. He seemed pleased with the roommate agreement and our ability to “be good roommates.” We left feeling like we would have died if we’d been stuck talking to him for another minute.
We walked around town for a while and when we came back, the room was blissfully empty. We went to bed with high hopes.
Creepy Guy comes in. He kicks over his glass beer bottle several times. He switched between muttering to himself and talking in Dutch/Danish at full volume. He stumbled around, scraped the wooden chair against the laminate floors. After about 15 minutes of this, Jess got fed up and stomped over to him. She had some choice words, but not one of them involved the universally understood “fuck you.” She was incredibly professional and firm, telling him he was intoxicated and he had to be quiet because he was being disrespectful. He responded surprisingly well to this. She even convinced him to leave for a while to go be loud in the bar area. I took the opportunity to escape to the bathroom, and ran into him in there. He didn’t recognize me, thankfully. When I slipped back out into the hallway, I heard the door to our room – which I’d left open because I didn’t have a key – close. I gritted my teeth as I knocked, knowing he would be the one to answer. He was so utterly confused that the door was making noise when he opened it and he just looked at me. I had to remind him I also lived there and he just sort of stumbled aside.
After another 10 minutes of his bullshit, Courtney got out of bed and literally tucked him into bed, hiding his beer bottle and cell phone so he’d have no reason to get back up. She talked to him like he was a baby and he responded by making the sounds of a helpless infant. At one point, he said, “I’m not happy camper…you are not happy camper either?” He sounded so utterly lost and sad and it kind of made me feel a flicker of compassion for him. But then I remembered how I was losing out on sleep, and all this after he’d insisted on making a roommate agreement and being good roommates. All was well for the next couple hours, thanks to Courtney’s valiant effort and practice with drunks.
Creepy Guy’s roommate didn’t have a key. Creepy Guy’s roommate banged on the door at 2 in the morning. When I say bang, I mean he attempted to wake up the entire hall. There was no gentle warning knock. He went straight to throwing his body against the door. Unfortunately, he was successful at waking up Creepy Guy, who fell out of bed and cursed and opened the door. They proceeded to have a conversation in Dutch/Danish at full volume. Creepy Guy scraped a chair against the floor and had a nice sit. Courtney and Jess were shushing him, and Guy Who Doesn’t Help halfheartedly attempted to get him Creepy Guy to lower his voice. He clearly wasn’t as intoxicated as Creep even though he was out later. Creepy Guy didn’t take being shushed by a bunch of American college students now that he’s sobered up from the sap stage to the aggressive stage. By this time, Joe from Dublin had also come home, and he was awake and pissed. When Creepy Guy started raising his voice at Courtney, telling her he was done being shushed, Joe spoke up and told him to shut up. Creepy Guy proceeded to ask Joe if he wanted to go outside and beat the shit our of each other. I make fun of the situation, but by this point we were all genuinely scared of him. He was angry and clearly out of control, and I couldn’t help but picture the worst case scenarios. I clenched my fist up in preparation for what might happen next.
Creepy Guy went out into the hallway and proceeded to speak loudly enough to himself to wake up half the hostel. Joe slipped out and tried to find a phone number for reception; the bullshit had gone on long enough and we were tired and scared for our safety. He didn’t have any luck, and soon after, Creepy Guy went to bed along with Guy Who Doesn’t Help. This was thankfully the last we heard of these assholes until morning.
In the morning, Creepy Guy had the audacity to say good morning to me. I told him in my coldest, curtest voice, “Hi,” and slammed my locker door. He spoke to none of us for the rest of the morning. One of the hostel staff showed up as we were heading to breakfast and had some words with Creepy Guy in Dutch, so we couldn’t understand. It sounded like he was being questioned though, and we hoped Joe had told reception about him when he’d checked out earlier that morning.
Flash forward to that night
We ran into the same hostel staff member while we were eating lunch/dinner. He confirmed that Joe had told them what happened and went on to tell us that Creepy Guy wasn’t even supposed to be in our room. He wasn’t supposed to be in our hostel. He hadn’t checked in, the bastard. I didn’t notice -Jess and Courtney did – that he hadn’t slept with any sheets on his bed, but they hadn’t thought he didn’t have any, just that he was too lazy to use them. For revenge, the hostel staff charged Guy Who Doesn’t Help’s credit card for Creepy Guy’s stay. It made sense to us then that the roommate agreement he wanted to make with us had something to do with his status as a stow-away, a loud, obnoxious, drunk, creepy one at that. Who the hell gets angry-drunk when they’re trying to get away with stowing away in a hostel for free??? We were pissed that we’d had to suffer him and he wasn’t even supposed to be there. If we had phoned reception like we’d wanted to in the middle of the night, they would have kicked him out. Wherever in the world Creepy Guy is, I hope Guy Who Doesn’t Help gave him a swift kick in the bum for being such a lousy bum.
I will make this quick because I am writing too many words.
- We went on a boat cruise of the canals through Bruges. There was one guy who kept standing up and blocking our views, but I’m not going to spend a lot of time airing my grievances about his rudeness. Instead, please enjoy these photos of Bruges from the water.
- We walked along the outskirts of town to find the windmills, which were not open this time of year. We did climb the ridiculously steep stairs of one, but couldn’t see much of Bruges because the windmill itself was in the way.
- We went to get Courtney and Jess some authentic Belgian waffles, and I was planning on eating my thermos of rice. Unfortunately, the rice fermented and smelled like cheese wine, so I had to watch them eat their waffles knowing that I would be able to go make fresh rice afterwards. Jess took her sweet time, and I can’t fault her for that. Courtney complained that their was too much chocolate on her waffles and as someone who can’t eat chocolate, I can fault her for such blasphemy.
- We lounged around the hostel for more hours of daylight than I am proud to admit, but we were exhausted both mentally and physically. I then spent the rest of the night walking around town and feeling guilty for wasting precious travel time I would never be able to get back. We were all sort of in a funk. The girls got gelato and I saw a toilet seat make a full rotation around itself after I flushed, disinfecting itself I assume. I just gawked at it while the water to wash my hands ran.
- So we went to a Belgian cinema not knowing what was showing or when or what language it would be in. Turns out, when there’s not a show coming on soon, no one mans the counter to field questions. The lobby was absolutely empty and the place was quiet. We sat around trying to figure out if we’d be able to understand any of the movies, subtitles being acceptable. No answers found, we went back to the hostel and came back later near show time. Turns out most of the movies were in English with Dutch and French subtitles even though we were in Belgium and the dominant language was not English. It was a lesson in privilege to sit in the theater watching The Danish Girl with a bunch of people who likely had to read the subtitles in their own country while we could blissfully ignore them. It just seemed wrong. Also, the movie was good – not perfect – and I was glad to see Hollywood join the conversation of trans-issues.
5 am came early. Too early. I got up and packed up and went downstairs to grab some breakfast and heat up my lunch. When I tried the door to the hallway leading to the kitchen and main lounge area, it was locked. Disbelieving, I tried it again. And again. Then I remembered a conversation with reception the night before when they told us the doors would be locked, and still it hadn’t clicked. There would be no breakfast for me. There would be no lunch; my rice would go to waste in my nice tupperware that I would have to leave behind. I was at a loss. I can’t just buy food at a cafe in the airport. I knew this meant I would have no food until I got home six hours later, provided no flight delays or other mishaps occurred. I left the hostel in a very bad mood.
This mood was not helped by the cobblestone sidewalks and my suitcase. I didn’t want to wake anyone up, since it was so early, so I had to carry my suitcase through the empty streets. It got very heavy very quickly. We all had to take turns carrying it and I have never hated cobblestones so much. The streets were lovely with no one in them and we saw a kitty cat, which made life a little better. After Courtney realized she never actually bought a return train ticket, we had few issues. I wasn’t as hungry as I thought I would be; it was more frustrating on principle than anything. There’s so much food everywhere and yet it is always out of my reach; I know I’m not the only one. I was so glad to be home so I could peel off my dirty clothes and take a nice hot shower and dry off with more than a hand towel, which I’d survived with in the hostel.
I think my biggest take-away from this experience was that Belgian butter is amazing and Belgian milk tastes like overpriced cheese. I had an incredible time in Bruges, but it was hard. Travelling is exhausting. Catching up with the learning curve of a new culture is difficult. It is also rewarding. I can feel myself expanding. I can feel my understanding of the world growing. I can’t imagine how I ever lived without knowing what I know now. I mean, how did I ever live without knowing that I could buy a Belgian chocolate willy for only 6 euros??!! Clearly, I wasn’t living before Bruges .
I just want to take a moment and acknowledge those of you who are reading these words. This blog post is somewhere around 8700 words. You are one dedicated person if you’ve read the entire thing, and I respect everything you stand for. Well, maybe not everything. But I appreciate your appreciation of my excess and my cynical self-deprecation and scathing criticism of everything that happened to me while in Bruges. You are a beautiful person and don’t you ever forget it. If I ever win the lottery, I’ll probably still give you nothing, but I still, I’m forever grateful for your support.
VIVA LA BRUGES