Thursday, October 29, 2009

My First Night in Belgium

As usual, with my travels comes adventures.

Once my lecture was over, I went to my apartment, packed up my computer and picked up my stuff, and walked over to Oxford's train station. I left on the 2:01 pm train to Paddington and then I hopped over via the Tube to King's Cross/St. Pancras. I got there rather early and actually made it just in time for the train 1.5 hours before the one I was on. (I wasn't sure if I could quite get there fast enough for that one, so I bought tickets for the 5:30 pm train.) I had a pretty decent spicy apple crepe while at St. Pancras and I also had a sandwich in case I wouldn't have a chance to eat tonight, which indeed turns out to be the case.

I took Eurostar to Brussel-Midi (this was my first Eurostar trip) and then switched to a local train to Louvain, which I made by one minute. I arrived in Louvain a bit after 10pm local time, got off the train, and tried to find signs to find taxis... except that it turned out that there were no taxis. Fuck. Why was I not warned about this by my hosts? It never even occurred to me that this might not be the case... Now I was going to have to navigate myself there. I asked for directions from the workers at a nearby video store (their English wasn't good) and they said they knew the hotel but it was really hard to actually give directions for it because of all of the twists and turns. I was able to get them to point out where I was on the map and roughly where the hotel was, and I also asked them to point out north to me because I always get disoriented and lose that after I travel. (Who says that direction sense is a skill that every D & D character should automatically have? Hogwash!) They recommended that I take a couple of specific turns and then ask people there.

So I walked a bit in the generally right direction, which even included a couple of street names that I found on the map, and there were lots of young people walking around (I was in the university area). The thing is that most of them were in various stages of drunkenness and were being loud/boisterous, which is one of the things that I very specifically don't like (in spades!) in people when it comes to going up to a stranger. Hence, I was extremely uncomfortable with the idea of asking any of these people for directions. I went past a bunch of bars with blaring loud music, and I was also uncomfortable going into those for directions for similar reasons.

I kept going in what I thought was the general direction (and it turns out that I was actually doing decently well), but then I felt lost and decided to find another place to ask for directions. I doubled back a bit in a direction I thought was wrong but would get me to another part of the university area, and I found a drug and liquor store. The person behind the desk was not helpful at all---he claimed to have never heard of the hotel---and completely brushed me off. (Thanks a lot, dickhead!) A young woman named Elizabeth who was there was very eager to help, though her English was very bad. However, she said she knew where it was and walked me very close to it so that I could go the rest of the way on my own. (I technically know where she works and I vaguely remember seeing the place during my walk. Tomorrow is her last day there, so I am tempted to drop by and say 'thanks'. I'm not sure if I will do that.) Anyway, mad props definitely go out to Elizabeth! She apparently expected a kiss on the cheek when it was time to depart---is that the culture in Belgium? (I have no idea), so I did that and we went our separate ways. OK, so strictly speaking, I kissed a girl on my first night in this country, but it didn't actually mean anything other than thanks + goodbye. Also, I did it quite awkwardly because I don't know how to do it (it was more like bumping of face against cheek), but anyway it seemed expected of me and because of her I actually got to the hotel within an hour of the start of my walk instead of wandering for who know how long. So I wasn't about to be rude. (And, by the way, she didn't steal anything from me, and I did purposely carry my own luggage despite Elizabeth's offer.)

Then I saw the hotel sign (and it opened up my mind). I walked an apparently alternative route on the hotel grounds, as I descended a hill and got some of my luggage, my shoes, and the bottom of my pants slightly wet in the process. A hotel worker compelled me to walk around instead of letting me enter via a side door, and I definitely understand his wanting to do that in case I was not actually a new guest as I claimed. So I did that, checked in, followed some hallways with some eerily familiar and yet very cool art (that I liked a lot, which is quite rare for me when it comes to famous artwork!) until I reached my room. Then it occurred to me that the art was by Rene Magritte---well, duh, given where I am!---and I have always loved his stuff! A very cool, unexpected bonus! This should have occurred to me beforehand!

I went to the hotel bar to hopefully see about food. Sadly, the bar was no longer serving food (only drinks), so I took a handful of peanuts and headed back to my room to go online. And here I am.


Jon said...

Given the opportunity, I would go back to see Elizabeth. It was kind of her to take the time to help you and it may be nice to have a local contact that is not associated with the reason you are in Louvain.

Mason said...

I'm way too tired to do so. If I were less tired, I'd do so, but I also managed not to remember where the place where she apparently works was even though I thought I passed by it while lost. I just got back to the hotel 20 minutes ago and didn't get much sleep last night, so I'm going to do the prosaic thing and do computer stuff. It's still tempting, but I think I'd need to be considerably less tired to do so.