Winter Break Part 1

Rostock-Hamburg-Madrid-Brussels-Luxembourg City

Hello folks! Here is the link to the photos:

Getting to Brussels #

I ended up getting a rather early train to Hamburg on Wednesday morning (February 9th) so that I wouldn't be rushed or stressed getting to the airport. I was in fact so early that I had time to check out an art museum near the Hamburg Hauptbahnhof.

Since Maggie isn't such an art museum fan, and was busy with school stuff anyway, I flew solo. Well "flew" might be overstating it. Trudged is more accurate, laden as I was with my heavy but comfortable backpacking pack borrowed from Diego, Amber's craft night coworker. I managed to follow google maps to the museum, and after exchanging my 2€ coin for two 1€ coins, I successfully locked my pack in the lockers. It was then that I discovered that the free museum entrance (because I'm under 26, yay!) was in another building… When I asked if I could leave my bag in the lockers there while I went to the free main exhibition, the cashier took pity on me and let me into the special exhibit that normally costs 14€, for free. It was 10am on a Wednesday after all, so the museum wasn't exactly packed. But still it was really quite kind of her.

So I had a nice hour or so comparing the "Dutch Masters" and their paintings of everyday life for both the peasants and the nobility, with the photographs and paintings of Lars Eidinger and Stefan Marx which portray similar subject matter in today's modern world. I love a good art museum! I always enjoy getting lost in the imagery and I tend to enjoy the works I "don't get" almost as much as the more straightforward pieces. It was neat to see the things that have certainly changed over the centuries in the everyday lives of people in this world, as portrayed through these artists' eyes, but also the things that haven't actually changed much. I do want to go back at some point and go to the permanent exhibition too, since I didn't have time to hop over there on this visit.

painting of a chaotic family home
The "Pleasures of Fatherhood" appear rather dubious by this representation. It made me chuckle

Next I made an appointment at a nearby covid test center and snagged a quick test just in case I might need it before boarding the plane. Also it's always just comforting to confirm that I'm not infected and infecting those around me too.

I arrived at the airport post museum and covid test so early that I made it through security and to the gate in time to be the absolute first person there. No employees, no passengers, no one beat me. So I got a prime spot with a phone charger and did the final edits of the Helgoland blog before sending it off to Adam to post, then ate the sandwich I had packed, and still had time to read my book and watch some planes refuel before boarding my flight to Madrid.

Yes Madrid. I am aware of the absurdity of flying west well past Brussels, all the way to Madrid in order get on another plane and fly back east to Brussels. But the flight was also absurdly cheap, so I went for it. The flight itself was pretty unexciting aside from the slightly horrifying screeching sound the aircraft made upon landing…one of the perks of having a self-proclaimed "aviation nerd" and professional airplane mechanic as a brother, is that he was able to diagnose the screech as a harmless something-or-other with the hydraulic system. I didn't really understand, but was impressed that he was able to diagnose the noise, even through a brief snapchat video!

I didn't realize how dry and mountainous Madrid was. Landing over the beautiful (and much warmer) city redoubled my desire to return and see more than the airport. I was somewhat frustrated by said airport however, since they didn't even announce the departure gate until half an hour before boarding, and the passenger locator form I had spent more than an hour trying to figure out how to fill out on their horribly designed and extremely user-unfriendly website was checked by no one. I guess this is just part of traveling in a pandemic.

I did get a delicious sandwich with "tortilla de patata" on it while I waited though. This scrumptious egg and potato dish made me think fondly of my Spanish coworkers from last year who would bring it to all the school pot-lucks. Before long I was on the eastbound plane back over to Brussels.

I landed almost half an hour early, which was nice. Less nice were the texts from Selina who was already at the airbnb, saying that not only was the power out, they had started doing construction, even though it was after 10 pm… Also not so nice was how confusing it was for me to figure out which train to take that would get me where I needed to go. In hindsight, I think the reason I couldn't find the train that was called "airport line" was because it was actually a bus. Needless to say, I did a lot of pacing up and down platforms and trying to decipher the French signs and train schedules. Eventually I just decided to get on a train and hope it went in the general direction (toward the city) that I needed, and figure the rest out from there. This strategy worked and I was able to transfer to a bus at "Gare du Nord" and eventually find the airbnb. Unfortunately Selina's phone was on "do not disturb" so it took a couple minutes before she realized I was outside. But at least it wasn't raining. Yet. That would be the next day…

I got up to the still dark electricity devoid room and confirmed that no, the airbnb host had not yet responded to my question about the power being out. And even if he did, my phone was about to die, and with no way of charging it, there was a good chance I wouldn't get his message anyway. Luckily we still had water so I could take off my backpack 15 hours after leaving my house in Rostock, and wash my face and hands.

Fortunately for us, a kind neighbor said something in French about engineers and went down to the basement, resulting in a return of power to our room a few minutes later. We were thus able to charge our phones and be reasonably assured Selina would have wifi for her work meeting the next day. I then ate some of the now cold curry Selina had ordered earlier.

Weirdest curry I've ever had, hands down. And that's including my own sometimes rather odd concoctions… My uncle Dan sometimes refers to hot sauce with insufficient spice for his taste as "dessert topping" but this "paneer korma" was actually so sweet it would have been more at home drizzled over ice cream than rice. Oh yah, and we had no utensils whatsoever so we had to eat it with our hands. Or I did anyway, Selina declined to partake, since her earlier endeavors had turned her pink-and-white gel nails a violent shade of sulphur yellow…luckily hand sanitizer saved the day.

At last, full of the strangest of curries and exhausted from our travels (Selina had gotten turned around on her way from the train station and found herself in the Brussels red-light district!) we fell gratefully asleep.

Exploring The Capital of the European Union #

Selina had a work meeting the next morning, so I went out and braved the rain so she could pretend that the barely-big-enough-for-the-bed studio apartment was appropriately office-y without me making noise in the background. I did manage to snag a delicious pain au chocolat for breakfast, which I ate huddled under the awning to avoid it getting rain soaked. I then strolled over to a lovely park…which was closed and locked behind an imposing spiked metal fence.

After a little more wandering through the soggy neighborhood, I dragged my thoroughly damp self back to the room and snuck in as quietly as possible to dry off as Selina's meeting wrapped up. We eventually managed to navigate the minuscule bathroom and get fully ready for the day. But seriously, it was so tiny when you bent over to wash your face your butt ended up sticking all the way into the shower, not to mention the fact that your knees hit the sink when sitting on the toilet and the sink couldn't even fit two hands comfortably for any sort of actual washing motion… The pictures we had seen when booking the place were just really cleverly framed to delude you into thinking it was…less cramped.

We swung by the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula as well as the mostly dormant and under construction botanical garden on our way to brunch. Ironically, we actually saw more flowers blooming in the square in front of the cathedral than in the botanical garden. Though the gardens did have some highly stylized hedges and artfully (oddly) pruned trees. Gardens like that always make me want to start reading a Jane Austen novel…

Brussels Botanical Garden with geometrically pruned hedges
I'm sure the garden is even more lovely when it's not a gloomy day in February

One of Tino's old friends who lived in Brussels had recommended the brunch spot, and it was a fantastic recommendation. Selina and I ordered and split two versions of waffles Eggs Benedict, a Virgin Mary for me (and for her to try—her reaction was the same as Maggie's had been to tomato juice "oh, it's like cold tomato soup!") One of our entrees was called "Call me Cheesus" and the other "Magic Mushroom" so I think you'll understand the delighted noises we made while savoring each bite.

After thoroughly enjoying the last rich mouthful, we paid and continued on our way. It was still rather a rainy day, so we were happy to explore the indoor market/mall area that was at least somewhat dryer. Despite having sworn it would be hours before either of us could eat another bite after the buttery cheesy egg-filled brunch, we nevertheless found ourselves unable to resist the Liège waffle on offer. Through delicious, it proved to be too much, and we both ended up with a slight stomach ache as a result.

We continued to wander through the city despite the persistent rain, however, and swung by the Royal Quarter where we found the setup for the "Bright Brussels" event that would take place later that evening. We decided to return after dark for a display that seemed like it would be a larger-scale version of the Rostock "Lichtwoche" event Adam and I had been to in early November. I love stumbling upon events like this when traveling, it always feels like you've won an unexpected prize of serendipitous timing.

We then headed for the Palais de justice de Bruxelles, where after a quick stroll through the metal detector, we were able to explore the main courthouse of the country. It was a bit surreal--seeing judges with their lacy collars hurrying about their daily tasks. There were surprisingly few signs or restrictions of where we could and couldn't go, so we crept around the hushed halls and admired the towering stone arches. It was surprising too, to see the contrast between the solemnity of the grand structure, but also the somehow humbling way that parts of the building were crumbling and under construction. I decided not to read too much into the potential metaphor of justice crumbling…

After wandering all of the floors open to visitors, we steeled ourselves for the sogginess still waiting outside, and headed out of town to visit the Atomium. Built in 1958 for the World's Fair, it is an impressive structure in the shape of (you guessed it) an atom. We ended up getting there just before it closed, so didn't actually go inside, but it was neat to see, all 102 meters of it.

From there we headed back to the airbnb where we would eat some of the… interesting …curry as a quick dinner before heading out to get some classic Belgian beer. We had cleverly devised a new angle of attack for the utensil-less conundrum: bottle caps! After spreading out a towel as a picnic blanket of sorts over the foot of the bed, we scoped some rice and then sauce onto the lids of the to-go containers and attempted to avoid the nail-stains of the night before. Let's just say that there is a reason bottle caps aren't normally used as spoons. Pieces of rice kept getting stick in the threads, and the edges were actually much sharper than they look….We managed to finish it off eventually, however, and set off once again for some beer and lights.

We found the famous Delirium Taproom, and ordered small glasses of the typical Belgian beer: dark for Selina and blond for me, so we could try both. They were quite tasty, and even Selina who normally isn't much of a beer drinker said she enjoyed it. We didn't linger long though, since no one had checked our vaccine cards upon entry, so we decided to keep moving as it began to get more crowded.

We did our best to track down the lesser known Jeanneke Pis, which is a small bronze statue of a little girl "peeing" into a fountain. It is a counterpoint to the extremely famous, and also famously underwhelming Manneken Pis (which is actually a replica of the original 1618 statue in bronze) of a little boy peeing into a fountain. Later research revealed that the attraction of Jeanneke Pis was actually what led to the Delirium Cafe and Taproom to spring up in the first place!

I swear we weren't drunk (the beer is famously strong, but we had each only had a small glass!) but we could not find this statue of the little girl, even though google kept telling us it was on the same street…After the third time of walking past the bouncers, we decided to give up and move on. We had done our best to support equality among the sexes in the field of touristy statues, but alas, it was not to be. As we left the neighborhood, we were enticed by some "French" (actually, of course, Belgian) FRIES!

I munched on the greasy salty potato-y goodness as we wandered our way back to the Royal Quarter where we had seen the light shows being set up earlier. It became evident that their budget was rather larger than Rostock's Lichtwoche had been. The first thing we ran across was a movie (in French, so we didn't catch much) being projected on the side of the Royal Library of Belgium. The trees in the square were also illuminated in multicolored spotlights. This is certainly a "picture worth 1000 words" type situation, so go check that out here:

We then proceeded to the palace of Charles Lorraine where there was an even more impressive rainbow 360 projection of images and vibrant colors on the entire surrounding walls. The statues were given colorful clothes of light and a fox and a sunflower were emblazoned on the walls too. It felt quite magical really.

the castle courtyard with projections of colored light
As neat as this is, it was so much cooler in person…

Our next stop was the Place Royale-Koningsplein, where there were spinning contraptions that lit up in dizzying displays of color, in time to the music that blasted forth. We stood and were transfixed for a while before following the crowd onwards to the next display. There were some museums that were open late, but there was some confusion about whether or not they were offering free admission and whether Selina would need to show a negative test in addition to her first round of vaccines, which eventually led us to just give up and move on. Our last exhibit for the evening then, was in front of the (humbly named) Royal Flemish Academy of Belgium for Science and the Arts. It was a three dimensional metal sculpture that emitted both steam (or dry ice?) and lasers that flashed and switched colors in time with the music. All in all it was quite an impressive display that was made even more special because we had so unexpectedly stumbled upon it. Our tired feet eventually begged us to head towards home, which we did, having walked over 26000 steps that day.

The following morning we packed up and checked out of the airbnb before revisiting the small bakery where I had gotten breakfast the day before. My order went like this "Un pain au chocolat y un croissant por fav-…s'il vous plait" yah, it turns out that speaking Spanish doesn't really always help when attempting to speak French, despite both being romance languages… We did however get our breakfast pastries, due mostly to the always reliable "international point-y language" as my Grandma calls it. Thus armed with buttery goodness, we set off on the day's adventure.

Our first real site of interest was the European Parliament. We detoured through the lovely Leopold Park on the way however, grimacing at the ugly colonial violence which that king had perpetrated in the Congo, even as we enjoyed the quiet pond and sunny paths. We didn't end up going in to the parliamentary buildings, but we did quiz each other on the arrayed flags out front (I was embarrassed by my lack of knowledge--I should really study up on my world flag ID…) and marvel at the grandeur of the buildings and think solemnly about all the important decisions that had been made inside those walls.

Next we headed for the so-called "African Quarter" in the Matongé neighborhood. It really was fascinating to see the buildings and people and overall atmosphere shift so completely so quickly as we walked. As someone who grew up in a small town in rural Wisconsin, where you have to drive so far to see the landscape and people change even slightly, it always mystifies me that big cities can contain such vastly different worlds in the same few block radius. We went from the polished, official-looking steel-and-glass dominated area surrounding the parliamentary buildings to shorter brick and stone buildings with far more color on the signs, walls and in the produce on display outside the many corner grocery stores. They featured okra, tiny orange chilies and greens and fruits of all kinds. We wandered in to one of these stores and got some plantain chips (a nostalgic snack from my time in Ecuador) and I picked out a drink from the cooler with a picture of ginger on the label and a bunch of French text neither Selina nor I could decipher. This was in-keeping with my normal style of "get the thing you won't be able to get anywhere else because why not? And trying new things is good" whenever possible. There was a man in the store who pointed at the drink and said something to me (in French) which I didn't catch, but the checkout clerk waved him off and rang me up.

When we got outside it became clear that the guy in the shop had probably been trying to warn these poor lost white girls off of buying what turned out to be the most bitter thing I have ever tasted. This includes the time I nibbled on a raw lemon peel. Selina was convinced it was poison. I stuck it in my backpack, in the hope that with enough honey and lemon, it might become drinkable….You win some and you loose some with my "try everything" philosophy. This looked like more of a loss. We then set off in search of a real lunch, in the form of a Congolese restaurant.

We eventually found one, and were thrilled when we went in to find an extremely friendly hostess/waitress who was willing to explain and recommend some dishes to us in English. Selina had eaten Congolese food a few times, so we got a couple of dishes she knew she would like, and the woman guided us through the selection of a few more. It was good that we had eaten a light breakfast, because by the time all of the food arrived, it barely fit on the table!

The basis of traditional Congolese food as I understand it is Fufu, which is a somewhat sticky and pliable mix between bread and porridge, made out of (according to the internet) white yams, plantains or cassava. It is the starchy base that can be used to scoop up stew or sauce, and I believe ours was made of cassava, though I'm not sure. It had a mild flavor and was much stickier than the kind Tino's mom makes, Selina said. We could certainly have managed with one order of fufu, because we didn't even finish the first one, despite the brown sauce, plantains, bean dish and greens we had to eat with it. Everything was delicious, especially the tiny bowl of vibrant red chili sauce that was both pleasantly spicy and fantastically flavorful--a rare combination. We ate and ate, but eventually admitted defeat, and asked to have everything boxed up in two separate bags to take with us. Though we knew it would be annoying to drag takeout all around the city with us for the rest of the day until we boarded our trains, there was no way we were leaving behind that much delectableness. We had to laugh when we were each given a full bag with probably almost two more meals worth of food in each, including the amazing chili sauce. We couldn't stop talking about how tasty it was: a tiny dab added so much flavor the a plate full of food, and it didn't just punch you in the mouth with heat (though it was extremely spicy) it genuinely added a complex flavor profile too--so good.

A table full of Congolese food
A feast fit for queens!

Staggering with the sheer amount of food we had consumed, as well as what we now had bagged up, we paid (45 Euros included a generous tip for all that food!) and continued on our way. We made a pit stop to pick out some Belgian truffles for Selina's dad's birthday the next day, and then went in search of the famously tiny "most disappointing monument in Europe," yes, you guessed it: the Mannekan Pis. Though the history of the sculpture is rather interesting, it is one of those things (similar to the "Little Mermaid" in Copenhagen) that you have to see because it is so overrated. The poor thing is only 24 inches tall, and is really just so average-looking. You would miss it completely if it weren't for the astonishing number of people crowded around it. I had to stand on a post to even get a look, there was such a horde of visitors! The more impressive sight, honestly was the group of old men with truly astounding white facial hair styled into elaborate curls extending well beyond the dimensions of their heads. There was also a brass band playing. I read later that there is an entire nonprofit dedicated to the changing of the Mannekan Pis' costumes throughout the year, so perhaps that was why there was quite so much fanfare surrounding the little lad on that particular day, because he was indeed decked out in… what appeared to be a chef's costume?

After snapping a few pictures, we continued strolling along. We found ourselves, almost by accident in the impressive gold-gilded Grand Place, or central square of Brussels, which we somehow hadn't seen up to that point. We marveled at the grandeur of the square a while before strolling onward, reveling in the lack of rain, and even the occasional glimpse of /blue sky/.

Before too long, though we had thought we would never eat again after our gigantic lunch, we were craving a snack. We headed into a waffle shop where I got some tea and Selina ordered a Nutella waffle (when in Belgium, after all) and we took advantage of the charging opportunity and the wifi to plan out routes to the different stations from which we would depart. She ended up being outraged by the sheer amount of chocolatey hazelnut spread the waffle was drenched in--it was rather extreme--so I had to help her finish it. I am the friend who finishes your food when you order too much, apparently. After as much waffle as we could handle, we said our goodbyes and parted ways.

I made it to the station with only a few minor wrong turns, which ended up leading me by some lovely murals under this bridge, so it was really for the best. It is always interesting to visit train stations in different countries to me. I like seeing how many of the announcement languages I can understand, and the different colors and designs of the local trains. Eventually it was my turn to board, and I confirmed with this English woman that yes, this train was indeed going to Luxembourg City, or so I hoped. I then settled in to listen to my audiobook and do some knitting, much to the interest of the woman peeling and slicing her apple with a pocket knife next to me.

I hand printed out my ticket, and I think part of me expected there to be some problem with it, since I couldn't quite believe that it would really cost under 10 Euros to travel to an entirely different country. Luckily the carefully un-creased QR code was scanned without issue by the conductor (complete with a traditional conductor's cap!) and the journey was uneventful. Upon arrival in Luxembourg City, I was able to navigate successfully the short distance to my airbnb. It wasn't until I arrived that I realized the tragic error I had made. I HAD FORGOTTEN THE CONGOLESE LEFTOVERS ON THE TRAIN! I had been looking forward to eating them as a late dinner at the new airbnb for the whole journey, since I had concluded that a train meal should really involve fewer containers and sauces, especially given there was no tray-table. I couldn't believe I had literally brought these dang leftovers /across an international border/ to enjoy, only to forget them on the train at the last minute. Alas. The room, once I arrived, was very comfortable however: complete with peppermint tea and a hot water pot, so I made myself a warming brew, and registered for a free walking tour for the next day before heading to bed.

Luxembourg: The Only Grand Duchy In The World #

The next morning I ended up grabbing a quick slice of focaccia from a grocery store on my walk to the starting point of the tour. It wasn't the best of the free walking tours I have been on, considering that the quiet voice and heavy Russian accent of the guide combined with the large size of the group made it rather hard to hear. It was still nice to see and hear some info about the local churches, old buildings and statues, as well as the history of the tiny country whose capital we were in. I did learn that the government had decided to make all public transport in the "Grand Duchy" free for all, to compensate for the extra high cost of living, which explained why my train ticket was so cheap: apparently I was only paying for the cost of getting to the Luxembourgish border, the rest of the journey was free! I did also take tons of pictures on the tour, which you can check out on the google drive link: if you are interested.

After the tour, I grabbed some lunch from the same grocery store chain where I had gotten my breakfast, this time opting for a salad bowl thingy and some fruit. I ate it picnic style on a sunny bench in a park that was halfway down between the upper and lower levels of the city, perched between the valley and the steep bluffs on either side of it. From there, I headed for the National Museum of History and Art, where I could get in for free, being under 27. I'm sure glad I didn't wait any longer to spend a year in Europe, apparently I would have had to pay for a lot more of these experiences!

After stowing my backpack safely in a locker, I headed down to the basement to methodically start my journey through the vast museum. The lower levels were dealing with prehistory, or so I assume, based on the few words I could parse in the exclusively French signs, and the fact that most of the artifacts were stone and crude metal tools. In a way, it was sort of freeing, not being able to read any of the informational plaques: it relieved the pressure to /read all the things/ that I sometimes feel in museums. I just cruised through, glancing at the displays and occasionally picking up a cognate from Spanish, German or English that would clue me into the content of the signs. I also found myself fascinated with the glass walls of the basement that revealed the richly textured stone into which the lower floors were set. More than being fascinated by the exhibits, I wanted to climb the museum…I resisted the temptation however, and eventually made it up to the higher floors. I really enjoyed a visiting photo exhibit on Iran and some more recent Luxembourgish history and art that had accompanying signs in English.

No matter how much I like them, I always feel sort of exhausted after spending a long time in a museum. Maybe it's all the standing? I somehow find that far more tiring than actually walking. Or else it's the sheer amount of information intake that eventually leads to a zombie-like state of blankness…In any event, I was ready for a change of pace by the time I finally navigated the twists and turns and multiple staircases and bridges to other wings and buildings and found my way back to the lobby. I repacked my backpack, donned my coat and strode forth into the bright sunshine to enjoy the last hours of it's bright rays.

A modern red bridge connecting the two bluffs separated by the river
After all the rainy cloudiness in Brussels, I was thrilled by that blue sky!

I ventured across the large red bridge to the opposite cliff where I sat for a while, watching the sun sink towards the horizon. Traveling alone is interesting. You get to do whatever you want, which is both freeing and somehow also paralyzing, since you can't relinquish the burden of making decisions to anyone else. My googling didn't reveal any botanical gardens I could visit (my go-to activity in a new city) and my other favorite pastime of finding something tall to enjoy the view from had already been satisfied by the myriad views afforded by the city being on a cliff. Thus, I found myself following my hunger and cheapness (it really is an expensive country and my research revealed that most of the "must try" Luxembourgish dishes were either very similar to German cuisine, or meat-based) so I simply went back to the grocery store for some dinner. I selected a local beer to try with the meal, and took advantage of those free busses to give my tired feet a break and head back to the airbnb for an early night.

The next morning I packed up my things and walked into the city center to investigate the glass-bottomed elevator that one can ride down the outside of the bluff to the valley. I thought there was a chance I might end up in Willy Wonka's chocolate factory, what with the great glass elevator, but that didn't pan out. I was nevertheless thrilled by the stomach-lurching descent and panoramic view as we descended. At the bottom I strolled along the sunny Alzette riverbanks, marveling at the debris caught up astonishingly high in the tree branches along the banks from the extreme flooding last summer. I made a loop of the lower part of the city (though it really had the feel of a small town, in all honesty, since the population is under 150,000) and then made my way back up the elevator.

By this time I was quite hungry since I had decided the elevator exploration should come before breakfast. I was frustrated, after google maps sent me in circles for quite some time, to find that apparently the cafe I had planned to eat at near the train station evidently no longer existed in actual physical fact. Thus I found myself grabbing yet another hasty meal from the grocery store before hopping on the train back toward Selina's.

I decided to do a "to be continued" here since after I finally finished chronicling all of my adventures over the two week break, it was 17 pages…So it seemed best to give you a little break. More to come soon!