From Brussels to Oxford

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Our return ferry ride from Belgium to the UK couldn't have been more different from our outgoing ferry ride there.  For starters, leaving in the morning and spending the day traveling is infinitely more enjoyable than making the journey overnight.  Secondly, well...... no -- I think not traveling overnight made all the difference.

We woke up early(ish) Sunday morning, sure that one hour would be enough time to pack up our laundry and go.  Let's just say this plan was.....optimistic at best.  Sometimes when we're hurrying to catch a bus or train or plane, Joe (our official packing coordinator) will wait until the last 10 minutes to start packing and Sunday morning was one of those times.  

I refrained from holding any grudges, however, seeing as how I know a thing or two about procrastination myself.  Although, my expertise in waiting-til-the-last-minute-ness is best exercised in academia: putting off tasks like writing moot court briefs, and drafting mock Supreme Court opinions, and writing moot court briefs.... and did I mention writing moot court briefs?  But that is beside the point. 

I stood in the bedroom doorway as Joe frantically packed, offering helpful reminders like, "Come on, Joe!  You've got 12 minutes!" and "8 minutes left, you can do it!"

Side note: If you're wondering why I wasn't packing, it's because -- like I said -- Joe is the packing coordinator.  There are no ifs ands or buts about it; it physically pains him if things aren't packed just so.  He treats it as a game of Tetris, which I'm cool with.  I prefer to play Tetris on the 1989 gray model of the Gameboy, anyway.

By the time our backpacks and sack lunches were packed, we had to sprint from Christie's house to the metro.  Have you ever sprinted through a major European city (or any city, really) wearing an oversized backpack?  It's kind of the worst.  Although I was spared of the duty this time around (Joe wears the backpack in our relationship), I'm no stranger to the soreness that ensues 2-3 days later, and I can attest to the fact that it's no fun.

Thankfully, Christie was sprinting right alongside us, for she had graciously offered to accompany us to the train station to make sure we found the Eurolines desk in time.  Once we arrived at the metro station, which would take us to the train station, I expected to pause at the ticket machine to buy our metro tickets, even though we had no time for pausing if we wanted to catch our bus.  Sure enough, as I slowed down at the ticket machine, Christie called back to us, "There isn't time for tickets, just get on the metro without them!"

I cannot adequately articulate how much anxiety this caused me, but anyone who has ever lived in Austria or Germany needn't me go any further.

For the sake of anyone who has not lived in Austria or Germany, I will attempt to explain: there is no crime more offensive to Austrians or Germans than the act of schwarzfahring (riding without a ticket).  Surely on the books, the official law states otherwise, but if you've ever lived there, you know the truth.  Thus, when the non-uniformed Verkehrs Polizei step aboard, wait for the bus or metro doors to close, and then reveal their non-civilian identities as they bark "Fahrschein, bitte" or "Fahrkarten, bitte", marching from seat to seat and demanding to see tickets, it's nearly impossible not to feel a wave of panic wash over you, even if you know that your ticket or bus pass is within reach.  And because I've seen one too many unsuspecting tourists get thrown off a bus and subsequently fined (and lectured in the process), I cannot, for the life of me, schwarzfahr -- in any country -- without fearing arrest or deportation, however irrational or baseless the fear may be.

In other words, when Christie instructed us to schwarzfahr and assured us, "No one ever checks for your tickets on the metro", my eyes became saucers, and I froze in place.  And when the metro rolled in to the station, despite the fact that we had to catch that specific metro or else we would definitely miss our bus to the ferry, it nonetheless rebelled against every fiber of my being to step on board, no ticket in hand.  It was a 10-15 minute ride from the metro stop to the train station, but it felt like 10-15 hours (!!!!) because every single time a well-kept looking man stepped aboard, I turned to Christie and panicked.  "It's happening," I would whisper, shaking her arm violently.  "We're going to get kicked off."  

Each time, she calmly assured me that whomever had just stepped aboard the metro was just a normal Belgian man doing whatever normal Belgian men do on Sunday mornings.  And each time, I believed her..... until the next ordinary-looking Belgian man would step aboard and we'd repeat the whole scenario.  One time, we were mid-conversation when I saw a man at the other end of the metro car walking from seat to seat, bending down to talk to each passenger.  I strained my eyes to see if passengers were showing him a ticket in return.  "Christie!", I all but screamed. "We have to get off!  That man is checking tickets!!!!"  In the process of trying (but ultimately failing) to inconspicuously gather my things in the event that I needed to jump off a moving metro train, I dropped my bkr water bottle and it thudded loudly to the ground before rolling away (Joe picked it up).  Christie turned and calmly explained, "Jennifer, that is a homeless man asking for money.  Calm down."

After that, I did calm down (as much as I could), but I still felt indescribable relief when we pulled into the train station and finally stepped off the metro.

Joe and I quickly hugged Christie goodbye to, ran to the Eurolines desk just beneath/outside the train station (passing a lovely pile of train station vomit on our way), showed our passports, and jumped onto the bus with five whole minutes to spare!  

The bus was nearly empty -- which is always a good sight to behold when you know you are about to be on that bus for the better part of seven hours -- and we took our seats next to an elderly American couple.  The couple asked us some questions about their visas, which I happily answered, being the visa expert that I am.  As we pulled out of Brussels, Joe and I couldn't help but overhear the elderly couple commenting on every. single. quasi-noteworthy thing we passed.  "Look at that billboard!"... "Ohhh, I wonder how you pronounce that word." .... "Did you see that billboard?" .... "Oh my, what an interesting looking sidewalk."  

After a few minutes, Joe turned to me and said, "Are they kidding me right now?  I can't do this.  Let's just swim back to London."  Obviously, he was kidding, but I tried to offer some perspective anyway.  "Joe, that could be us someday.  And hey, at least they're traveling?"  Joe agreed on both accounts but added the afterthought, "Well, if that is us someday, we will at least have the courtesy to tone down the constant stream of unnecessary commentary."  And then he promptly fell asleep.

Eventually the elderly couple fell asleep too, and I enjoyed a quiet and peaceful ride to the border.  We went through the first customs without issue, got our passports stamped, and were herded through the line to second customs.  I asked Joe before we approached the customs agent, "You have all your papers and forms from Oxford, right?"  "Yes," he assured me.  "Of course I have them."  I apologized for doubting him.

We stepped up to the customs desk and the officer greeted us before asking to see our papers and forms verifying our student status.  Joe took a quick look through his bag and then conclusively announced, "I don't have them.  I must have left them at Oxford."  

I smiled at the officer and shrugged, as if I expected him to respond, "Oh well, thanks for trying!  Go on about your day now", and dismiss us.  Instead, he asked us, "Do you have any other forms or papers proving your student status at the University of Oxford?"  Joe looked through his bag once more and then announced, "I have some notes on the English legal system."

"That will not do," the agent heartlessly replied.

Joe remembered that we'd taken a screen shot of all of our .pdf forms before we'd boarded our plane in D.C. and he produced his phone to scroll through the screen-grabs for the agent.  To our surprise and delight, the agent accepted this as satisfactory, despite the fact that the forms bore neither of our names -- a mistake we hadn't noticed until standing before the customs agent.  Miraculously, we were admitted to pass.  Once we re-boarded the bus, and then boarded the ferry, we reveled in our sheer luck, along with the fact that, unlike last time, it was not 4:00 A.M.  

As we made our way into the ferry's dining hall, however, I was overcome with a weird sense of deja vu.  Am I back at Gymnasium Eckental?, I wondered.  Everywhere I looked, there were unruly teenagers swarming about.  German ones, Italian ones, English ones.  And worse, they were all unsupervised.  This made for a very trying 20 minutes, as I stood in line to get our plates of food (we had split up so I could get lunch and Joe could find us a table).  Surrounded by a group of 12-year-old Italian boys, I took deep and measured breaths as they shoved and pushed and teased their way from the start of the line to the buffet. Ten minutes later, having reached the end of my rope, when one of them bumped against me -- rather carelessly and obliviously -- I turned abruptly, narrowed my eyes, and stared deeply into the souls of each one of them.  I felt terrifying and maternal and powerful and downright middle-aged; the pushing and shoving came to a screeching halt and I was able to get my fish and chips and mashed peas and vegetable cornish pastie and beans and potatoes in peace and solitude, just as it should have been.

When I returned to find Joe sitting at the table he'd claimed for us, I proudly set down our trays and told him, "You better appreciate those 2 ketchups -- they cost me 40 pence."

Quick summary on the food: fish and chips were good, everything else was TERRIBLE.  We played Tick and tried to reconcile the fact that we'd just spent, like, 30 GBP on a meal not fit for human consumption. 

By the time we'd reached London, it was raining, and we also had no idea where the Oxford Tube even picked us up.  So we did what any sensible traveler would do: we waited until we saw an Oxford Tube drive by and then chased after it.  Once aboard, we reached 2 important agreements: (1) we should go back to Belgium again someday soon and spend more time with Christie and Mathieu and (2) we should never, ever, ever go there by ferry again.

Our last night in Brussels

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

By the time our last night in Brussels rolled around, Joe and I were too tired to do anything that involved actual physical movement.  Thus, we decided to stay in and enjoy a home-cooked dinner on the patio with Christie and Mathieu.

This meal was Mathieu's idea; he planned and cooked it himself, with Christie's assistance, and he insisted that Joe and I remain completely sedentary on the living room couch in the process, lifting a finger only to occasionally raise a glass of rosé to our lips (maybe the sedentary part was our idea, but he did suggest and provide the rosé).  Even that act proved too labor-intensive for me, though, so instead of drinking the wine, I resorted to simply staring at it on the coffee table from my horizontal couch-position, thinking how nice it would be if  I actually had the energy to reach for the glass.

I'm not even being hyperbolic; in the past 48 hours, Joe and I had walked 2-dozen miles and our bodies were weary and sore, to the point where I honestly considered skipping dinner and just going to bed at 8:30.  

But we were in Brussels!  And we couldn't waste the time sleeping!

So I fought the exhaustion and eventually won; I eventually mustered the willpower to transfer from the couch to the patio and it was well worth the effort.  The meal over which Mathieu and Christie so tirelessly toiled was very good, but truth be told, the highlight for me was..... the frozen Dr. Oetker's pizza Christie made for me as an "appetizer" (per my request).  Dr. Oetker's is a pizza brand available in most European countries and it's -- well, it's a pretty, shall we say, economical dinner option.  In other words, it's comparable to Totino's or Jeno's pizza in the States, except (!) the ingredients in Dr. Oetker pizzas are not proven to cause cancer, which distinguishes them from the aforementioned brands in no uncertain terms.  Although I did recently discover that they sell Dr. Oetkers in select US states, and wouldn't you know, the US ingredients are of the cancer-causing variety, illegal in non-US countries.  Coooooooooool.

Anyway, the fact that I was so delighted by the Dr. Oetker pizza amused Christie to no end -- seeing as she had paid, maybe, like, 3 euro for it.  But I had missed Dr. Oetker so much!  Last time I was living in Europe, I ate it all the time because it was one of the only meals I could afford.  Sometimes it would be the only thing I could afford all day, so I'd starve until dinner and then eat it as slowly as possible so as to savor the floury crust.... 

Those were the days.

Aside from Dr. Oetker, the other highlight of the night occurred just after dinner when I excused myself from the table to hang all of Joe's and my laundry out to dry on the patio.  Christie, Mathieu and Joe were still eating, but I wanted to make sure that our clothes got dry before we left in the morning (we'd done several loads of laundry at Christie's to save money since it costs to launder our clothes at Oxford -- thanks for the free laundry, Christie!).  So I stood beside the dinner table on the patio and carefully hung each article of clothing on the clothes line, adding my two cents to the group's conversation as necessary.  Fifteen minutes later, just as I'd hung the last piece, I resumed my place at the dinner table with a loud, satisfied sigh.  In that moment, Joe pushed his chair back from the dinner table and announced, "Well, I'm gonna go get all our clothes from the washer and hang them out to dry."  Christie and Mathieu stared at him, blankly, as I nudged him.  "Uh, Joe?"  He turned in his chair, visibly stunned to see that the work had been done inches away from the dinner table, unbeknownst to him.  It reminded me of one of my mom's favorite stories that involves me, as a two-year-old, obliviously playing on the floor as she and my sisters assembled and decorated our Christmas tree from top to bottom, only to look up upon their completion and gasp in complete shock and awe.  Not that I'm comparing Joe to a two-year-old or anything.

After dinner, Christie and I sat down to watch TV and I made it approximately 4 whole minutes before unapologetically passing out on the couch.

Speaking of which, I can no longer keep my eyes open as I type this.  So I'll tell you about how we got home from Brussels tomorrow.  Teaser: it involves me almost shoving a group of adolescent Italian boys off of a ferry.

Stay tuned!

The Best Waffles in Belgium (A Day in Bruges)

Monday, September 14, 2015

The night before our trip to Bruges, we went to bed at Christie's intending to take the first morning train out from Brussels!

We woke up intending to take "the one around, oh, like, 10:00 or 11:00?  Maybe?"  

We were very tired.

Mathieu had an early morning bike ride planned with his dad (as I understand, they do this every Saturday), so he opted out of our trip.  When I realized this, I said, "Oh, we can wait to leave until after you get back!  Should we wait until lunchtime and go?"  And then he told me his bike ride lasts, like, nine hours.

And that's how me, Joe, and Christie went to Bruges for the day, just the three of us!

During our train ride, Joe inadvertently won Christie over by patiently listening to the two of us catch up on Oklahoma gossip, and not getting a word in edgewise, all the way from Brussels to Ghent.  By the time we made it to Bruges, Joe had earned Christie's official stamp of approval, which felt especially nice since we are already married.  

Side note: I did worry, though, when we stopped in Ghent to change trains, that maybe Christie would revoke her pro-Joe endorsement; we were standing on the train platform and I said, "Did you know every time a train or subway approaches, I have this sudden sick feeling that somebody is going to push me onto the tracks?"  Christie's eyes widened.  "I have that same feeling!", she remarked.  That's when Joe chimed in,  "You know what's funny?  Every time a train or subway approaches, I have this sudden urge to shove someone onto the tracks...."

Important disclaimer: he was joking.

First stop in Bruges: lunch!  We walked around for about half an hour in search of a restaurant or cafe that was (1) outdoor and (2) not 25 euro per plate.  This was surprisingly hard to find, so we had to venture off the beaten path a little bit and away from the Markt.  We finally settled upon a Mexican restaurant, the name of which I can't remember, most likely because it was not good.  So I can't advise you "Steer clear of this Mexican restaurant in Bruges: ______" since I don't know the name, but based on the quality of this "Mexican" food, I think it would be a fair assessment to advise you to steer clear of all Mexican restaurants in Bruges.  Maybe all of Belgium, for that matter.  In fact, based on the Mexican restaurants I've visited in Germany, Poland, England, etc., I would feel more comfortable advising you to steer clear of all Mexican restaurants in Europe.  So just stick to the ones in the U.S., preferably in or around the state of Texas.  

To give you an idea of how 'authentic' this Mexican food really was: as I skimmed over the menu, I said to Christie, "Oh!  They have a 'Dallas burger' here!  Interesting!"  I pointed to the 'burger' section of the menu and she glanced at it, muttering to herself.  "Yes, well, they also have a 'Bollywood burger', so....."

See what I mean?  Authentic.

Also, as to why any Mexican restaurant's menu needs a 'burger' section at all is beyond me.

Lunch itself was relatively uneventful; we ordered a burrito (for Joe), quesadillas (for me), a taco salad (for Christie) and I got in trouble from the waitress for having my own water bottle at the table instead of spending 5 euro on one tiny bottle from the restaurant.  In other words, nothing too out of the ordinary happened.

After lunch, I was still pretty hungry so we set off to find the best Belgian waffle in all of Belgium.  The last time I was in Belgium, I tried a waffle or two and wasn't impressed.  But I knew if Belgium was known for its waffles, then I must have been missing something, so I decided to keep on sampling the waffles until I fully understood the phenomenon, no matter how long it took me -- a burden I was willing to bear. It was this firm resolve and determination that led us straight to Chez Albert, a small waffle shop that opens right up to Breidelstraat.

Maybe I'm crazy, but up until that moment at Chez Albert, I didn't understand that the Belgian waffles you order at brunch in the States are not actually Belgian waffles.  Traditional Belgian waffles are not fluffy, light, airy and covered in syrup.  On the contrary, they are crispy, baked (fried?) in sugar, crunchy, and topped with strawberries, fresh whipped cream, or your choice of other fruit-ish toppings.  Naturally, I ordered mine with strawberries and cream and almost collapsed into a state of sheer bliss as I finally got it: so this is why Belgium is known for its waffles.

A few other notable things happened that day.  First of all, Joe took a strong interest in a dead fish floating in the river.  He filmed a video of it (?) and then pointed at it, quite excitedly, as a boat of tourists rode past it down the river in a rented canoe.  Unsurprisingly, they did not seem as amused as he did.

A second item of note: around the time we spotted the dead fish, Christie climbed upon a soapbox of sorts, resuming our previous day's commentary on all major players of the Bachelor franchise; "I just want to write to Andi and tell her to go back to being an attorney.  I mean, the world has enough YouTube beauty bloggers as it is, you know?"

Her soapboxing continuing as she talked through her frustration over modern baby name trends, particularly cutesy names for baby girls; "You should name your daughter something that allows her to have a legitimate presence in the business world if she so desires.  Because, I'm sorry, but there's never going to be a CEO named Annabelle Louise."

Although, I should mention that I could kind of see someone named Annabelle Louise taking over the Honest Company in 50 years when Jessica Alba retires.  Just saying.

Later on, Christie said something to me -- something I've often heard from anyone who currently is or has been Facebook friends with me:  "Now, I've noticed that you seem to post a lot about Amanda Knox..... what is that all about?"  I gladly interpreted this question as an invitation to launch my hour-long presentation on the matter, and I can only imagine Joe's internal eye roll as he heard me summarize, for the umpteenth time, every book I've ever read about  the trial of Amanda Knox and all the events surrounding it.

After all that talk about murder and injustice, we were pretty tired, and had really seen all of Bruges there is to see (you can easily see Bruges in a day, just make sure you stop at Chez Albert for a waffle).  On our way back to the train station, though, we happened to pass by Zara, at which point Christie and I announced to Joe, "We will be right back -- we're just gonna take a quick look inside."

Three hours later, we were on the train to Brussels, shopping bags in hand.  I came home with 2 shirts, one pair of pants, and a sweater, all for under 50 euro!  

In related news, Joe tried on so many shoes but didn't buy a single pair, and if you know him but at all, this should shock you to your very core.

One more day in Brussels and then it's back to Oxford we go.  See you tomorrow!