So. First week of my Europe Backpacking Experience and I board the bus that will take me from Paris to Brussels to Berlin. Stomach comfortably padded with macaroons, bag stuffed with PB&J sandwiches, journal in hand, I nestle into my window seat on the bus.
First rule of travel: Transportation never goes as smoothly as planned. (Take my friend Elea, for example, who got stuck in the Chunnel, the train tracks beneath the English Channel, for several hours.)
I found myself locked inside a bus filled with angry French people, who started shouting in French and banging on the windows and doors while I sat there with my PB&J croissant and English-speaker face of puzzlement.
Eventually, the bus was unlocked, the driver climbed in, and at some point rather later than originally planned, we set off for Belgium. Keep in mind, I didn’t receive a passport stamp when I arrived in France (from England), or when I arrived in Belgium. This meant that when I arrived at 2am at my second border check point on my bus ride from Brussels to Berlin, I had no stamp allowing me to be in continental Europe. You can imagine that 15 minutes of fun, I’m sure. The end result was a note in my passport, handwritten in German, and the begrudging nod of approval from the border police.
I had about 5 hours in Brussels, Belgium before I hopped on another bus to Berlin, Germany. My goals for Brussels were simple: See the architecture in the famously beautiful central square and eat Belgian chocolate.
Not only did I totally complete these goals, I also went on a statue hunt, got slightly lost (of course), watched candy being made, and ate a Belgian waffle. In Belgium. With real Belgian people. All in all, a much cooler 5 hours than even binge-watching Netflix on a Saturday afternoon.
1. Stunning architecture.
This awesome lady stopped and took my picture in the square, because, she said, she used to travel with an enormous backpack as well, and didn’t have any pictures of herself. Once again, I’m blessed by the kindness of strangers.
Seriously, that Belgian chocolate is so good. I went around to all the chocolate shops within reach of the square, scouting out the price, flavors, and beauty of the chocolate before making the rounds once more and buying tiny quantities of chocolate from a half dozen chocolate shops.
3. The statues.
Oh boy. Where to begin? Every city has its mascot, as I soon discovered. Some make more sense than others, but all are held with pride by their inhabitants. The Eiffel Tower, La Sagrada Familia, the Leaning Tower of Pisa… and Mannekin Pis. That’s “Little Boy Peeing,” for the folks at home.
This statue was everywhere: in every shop window and on every street corner, made of chocolate or dressed in World Cup gear. You can’t imagine how many corkscrews I saw in tourist shops.
I was determined to visit the lesser known Jeanneke Pis, the little girl version or sister-statue, as it were. I learned, eventually, that it’s relative obscurity was probably not due to sexism; no, while Mannekin Pis is so easy to find I literally stumbled upon it, Jeanneke Pis is hidden halfway up a wall at the end of a busy alleyway. Be glad that you never have to know just how many times I circled that stupid alley before finding it. I was not giving up.
4. Belgian waffle!
Oh Americans, forget about strawberries and whipped cream! This was an authentic Belgian waffle, and that means heavenly goodness in one plain, sweet square.
I did a few other things during my 5 hours in Belgium: took the metro, made the obligatory cathedral visit, spoke with an Irish man on a street corner, tried to convince a Belgian man I was Canadian (it didn’t work; pro tip, French speakers want to speak French to Canadians, and they don’t believe in Vancouver), ogled the murals and street art, and almost missed my bus to Berlin because I tried to board the one around the corner.
I walked away from that day with a pocket full of Belgian chocolate, and that, my friends, is a very good thing.