Bruges canalsI traveled to Brussels with a friend from high school. When it comes to the internet, she likes to stay anonymous for her own personal (and absolutely understandable) reasons, so I'll respect that and just call her OTG (for Off The Grid). OTG's been living in London for a while, completing a graduate program, and needed to go to Brussels to pick up a refund from some Olympic tickets or something or another, so she decided to make a little holiday out of the visit and I decided to tag along.
Central BrusselsOTG's pretty much one of the funniest people I've ever met, always has been. I spent three days laughing so hard I almost had about 27 asthma attacks and tore my stomach muscles. She's a unique combination of smart and driven, with a huge dose of not giving a shit. And she somehow always seems to get herself into those types of perilous situations that make for the best stories afterwards. This trip was no exception.
Getting Locked in a Thai Restaurant
We left London on Tuesday morning at o'dark thirty (actually 6 AM). After taking the train, finding our way around Brussels and to our hotel a little outside of town, and then getting in a run (me) / nap in a lounge chair (her), we started to head back into the city at 4:30 PM, realizing only when we passed a small Thai restaurant that we hadn't eaten in about 11 hours. So we decided to hop on in and grab an appetizer.
The Thai restaurant looked pretty much like a converted house....very cute, small dining room with apartments in the floors above. We pushed open the door and saw several tables set for dinner, but didn't immediately see any employees. We ventured further in, shutting the door behind us, calling out "bonjour?" a couple times, before realizing that the restaurant was empty and closed.
Where we almost spent the nightSo we turned around to leave, only to discover that we were locked in. The place had one of those European doors where you need a key to exit, and while we'd somehow managed to get in without a key, there was no hope of getting out. No back door, no windows that opened, nothing other than an empty kitchen that was a bit cluttered but smelled really quite good.
Then we did one more full-fledged search, found a set of keys that had been hidden by a pile of papers, and managed to escape from the restaurant. What a great start!
Public Pool Swimming
Before we left for Brussels, I casually mentioned to OTG that I might like to try and find a pool and get in a swim workout at some point during our trip, if she was alright with that. I know spending half of a day traveling to and from a pool in a random, off-the-beaten-path part of town isn't everyone's idea of fun vacationing, but turns out that OTG is just about the perfect traveling partner for me. We both prefer just wandering around new areas to museum hopping, and she was actually quite excited about tracking down the local pool and swimming.
Typical Brussels neighborhoodOTG and I were both on the swim team in high school, but she was much, much faster than me. But she hasn't been in the water for quite some time, and had to scramble to find a swimsuit. After a bit of hunting, she found a plain black speedo that she was fairly certain she'd borrowed from her sister at some point. Some might call her suit "modest." Others might say it was better suited for her grandmother. All she needed was one of those rubber swim caps with flowers that have a strap around the chin. I would have laughed at her the moment I saw it, but I didn't need to, because she was laughing at herself quite enough for the both of us.
Our 33 meter pool. This picture makes it look nicer than it was.I was, of course, wearing my most flourescent Dolphin Uglies suit. Think, bright lime green, purple, and blue in a nauseatingly active pattern. You know, like every other triathlete out there, trying to counteract the grim boring-ness of thrice-weekly, solo swim workouts with cheery, colorful apparel.
If you forget your swimsuit, you can buy one out of a vending machine for 15 eurosThe pool we found was, oddly, 33 meters long. I've been in many a strange pool, but this is the first time I've encountered a 33 meter pool. It took some fancy math, but I figured out how to convert my workout. It meant doing some 198 meter swims instead of 200s, 66s instead of 50s. This highly amused me and OTG. "OTG," I'd say, "I'm going to do a set of five 198's. Care to join me?" And she'd just laugh, and respond, "Nah, that's a bit aggressive for me at this point. But I'll just do some 132s in the meantime." Swimmer humor.
After my second 66 of a set of 12, OTG stopped me at the wall. "Amanda, I in no way want to make you feel uncomfortable, or like you've done something wrong... but when it comes to fashion at this pool, one of us has completely nailed it, and one of us sticks out like a sore thumb." I had a look around, and she was absolutely right. The granny-cut black swimsuit she'd found was spot on. Everyone, young and old, was wearing modest, plain color one-piece swimsuits. I looked like a total clown in my flourescent swimming nightmare. Embarrassing.
After completing my 3,046 meter workout (I made that up), we cleaned up, had a beer or two at the full bar that overlooked the pool (did I mention how much I love Belgium??) and walked the long way back home, through neighborhoods and forests. Exactly how I like to travel.
Post-workout beer at noon? Yes, please.
OTG on Chimay
If there's one thing Belgium does well, it's beer. And Belgians love their beer. Twice, OTG and I hopped into a gas station on the way to the subway station to grab bottles of water at around 10:00 AM. And twice, we saw a group of not-degenerate guys huddled around a table in that gas station, drinking beer and chatting about the day. No big deal.
Wall of Beer
Anyway, Wednesday night, we found a fanastic, not-too-touristy pub near central Brussels, and stopped in for a beer. It started raining (typical), so we hunkered down for a while, finally heading out several Chimays (her)/ Leffe Blondes (me) later.
OTG in real life is hilarious. OTG after several Chimays is extra chatty, extra "snacky" (her term), and extra random. We walked down the street, in search of some special sort of Belgian french fries that we'd heard about but never actually found, and she launched into a beer-fueled soliloquy the likes of which I've never seen. Of course, I am a bit of a jerk and realized that she was in rare form, so I followed along, laughing, and recording her quotes on my phone. It went something like this:
- "Oooooh, this is a cool....whatever the heck this building is. Doesn't appear to have french fries. Let's move on."
- "I would have been an awesome cavewoman, by the way."
- "What is with this jeans shorts over black tights thing? Don't get it." [seen this style all over Europe....it's coming to the U.S. soon, if it's not already there]
- "We came to Brussels and I tried the chocolate. It was completely overrated. I'm really excited about the fries, though."
- "Did I tell you I actually once cut the the head off a chicken?"
- "Oh, there's Pizza Hut! I will give up all my travel morals for a single slice of pizza. If they have pizza by the slice, I am in."
- "It concerns me how attractive I find men in kilts."
- "God, I would kill for some pad thai right now. But not as much as some gravy french fries. Let's keep looking."
- "Really, I think what I really want to do is be an architect. Or just buy a farm on a hill and build an art studio and just do art all day. Or maybe I'll go into art policy. I don't actually know what art policy is, though. Do you?"
- "I wish they made diet beer that had no calories and tasted delicious and got you drunk. That would be amazing."
- "Wait, you know my younger brother has six toes, right?"
- "Tomorrow, as far as I am concerned, our priorities are 1) sitting on a boat on a canal; 2) beer; and 3) french fries."
More on Belgium, later!