Adventures in Culture and Travel

18 March, 2013

What Hurts the Most

There's a country song that goes like this:

Every now and again I pretend I'm okay but that's not what gets me.
What hurts the most, was being so close. 
Still harder getting up, getting dressed, living with this regret.

Last Monday my study-abroad experience ended with a whimper. My re-entry debrief occurred at 4 PM at the International Program Center at UNCG. I walked in, sat down and my grades from Brussels were slid to me across the desk like some legal settlement, like the Devil asking me to sell my soul. I peeked out from one eye, cringing, and looked at the offer. A semester of travelling across Europe, drinking beer, and volunteering left little time for studying. I expected Ds or Fs, after-all that's what I deserved. I think I had already accepted that was okay. After all  the lessons, and language skills I gained outside of the classroom changed me more than any semester ever had, but it was the people and the professors who formed those experiences. As I glimpsed at the signature of Dean Mosselmans, a name I missed seeing, I saw a transcript of A's and B's.  I'm still not convinced I deserved any of it. 

I ran my fingers across the paper and the ink, hoping to touch something of Brussels one last time, as the woman in charge of the delivery asked "is everything okay?". "Yes", I replied without much thought as I believe I saw a red tail wag with content from under her desk (she's honestly a wonderful person, I'm simply implying I felt like I had sold my soul, and now payment was due). I was advised how to move forward academically, then handed a letter I wrote to myself some twelve months earlier. I laughed as she handed it to me:
Dear Liv,
Bla, bla, bla, bla...  
My biggest fears are, that I’m “past-my-prime”, or that despite my best intentions, that I won’t be accepted. I fear that I won’t have the ability to live up to everyone’s expectations, or that I’ll walk away from this experience with more regrets. I worry that I’ll come home to a world in which I can no longer fit into, having seen and done so much- or that I might actually not want to come home, and that doing so might break my heart.
Bla, bla, bla, bla... 

What a load of horse-shit is that?  Let me tell you, the entire letter is complete crap. I wouldn't have sent my ass anywhere based on that "the world is rainbows and fluffy bunnies", let-the-experience-change-me letter. How about a warning to myself about how my life would be completely fucked when I got home? How I feel like a tourist in my own country now, and that I generally can't wrap my head around Americans anymore? How about how I miss the sounds of the Metro, the  laughter of the people I used to know, or that I miss the other "me" so bad that I'm driving myself insane trying to forget all of it? How about despite living everyday in Belgium trying to prevent regrets, I'd be too blind to see the biggest effing regret coming, and I'd run head on in to it? 

This is where you should stop reading if you know me personally.

A regret that everyone around you is responsible for participating in. You let them guilt you into the idea that this is all you deserved, that going abroad was such a burden upon everyone, and I accepted that my happiness was negotiable. So yes, I boarded that plane back to the States on my own despite a thousand opportunities where I could have cut and run (though didn't), but, no one tried to stop me. No one said "maybe you should stay?". I certainly don't have any justification to blame anyone but myself, but you knew what you were doing, just as all of us know when "we trust in prayer" and pull the plug, it's really our decision (*you in a more general sense). Even in the moments that led to my return, I considered the possibility of trying to stay, but the consequences were set by you, and despite what everyone knew what I needed, everyone chose what supposedly was "the right thing to do". Now the "right thing" doesn't feel so right, and here I am sitting in an office in Greensboro, looking at my grades, and the woman beside me is asking me "do you have any regrets?". "No I reply lie. It was the most amazing time of my life." (which was the truth)".  I mean what right do I have to complain? We shook hands said goodbye, and I stood and began to walk out the door. Then I stopped, turned around and said "that's not entirely true". "I'm sorry?", she asked. "I have one regret...". 

So this is it, I don't plan on writing much after this. Writing means one of two things: either I write stupid anecdotal experiences void of emotion, or I write what really happened. Words have consequences, and I imagine just writing this will be enough to hurt someone, somewhere. This is why I can't write anymore. I can't bring myself to hurting people with the words I write, and the truth is if I were to say what really happened in Brussels, then I'd just disappoint all of you. 

The truth is, I had the chance of a life time, and was given the opportunity for more, but I cared more about what everyone else thought than what I thought. I thought that all I deserved was one semester, I never thought I deserved any of it. In fact, in the letter I wrote:
I’ll admit, I’m scared of the idea that I've committed myself to something I’m not worthy of, and that I’m grossly unprepared for, or even too old for.
What the hell? I climbed fucking mountains in Spain, I conquered Rome, I reveled in Poland, I passed out in Amsterdam, I spent two years of college to get to the place I knew I belonged, and I just walked away, because I was told I didn't deserve anymore time (whose the fucking sheep now, Liv?).

...and that's the truth, and it hurts like fucking hell. I had probably the most amazing study-abroad experience out of all my peers, I lived legends, it was utterly epic, and in the end I boarded the plane home because I didn't feel I was good enough to be there anymore, and I'll regret it for the rest of my life. I was this close, and that's what hurts the most.

03 March, 2013

Neuhaus Chocolate Outlet

Neuhaus started life as a pharmacy, and was the first
chocolateur to create pralines.
One of the places I meant to write about back in January, that I never really got to was the Neuhaus Factory Outlet in Brussels. I ran down there before my flight back to the U.S., because I desperately needed an authentic Belgian Christmas gift for family. The quick and dirty version of this place is you can a) go eat as many Neuhaus chocolates as you can shovel in your mouth for free, and b) buy whole one kilogram boxes for the price of 25 euros (or 3 for 50). It's not cheap, but considering one (piece of) chocolate at their downtown locations could cost 7-10 Euros, and a box might contain 50-100 morcels (or more) , you can see why people flock down to outlet for some bulk purchasing discount fun (especially around the holidays).

Of course most tourists don't even know this place exists. I happened to stumble upon a New York Times article on the place about a year ago, and then subsequently ended up in  living in Anderlecht, where my host-family knew exactly what I was talking about.

Those open boxes? Those are samples. Free samples. That's right.
You will find a lot of Belgians in there especially around the holidays, and former residents who come in to town during this time. You do have to re-wrap in your own cellophane  but handing out retail cost, fifty Euro, chocolate gift-bags tends to put smiles on people faces. Many of them will never know you didn't buy them at the fancy boutique at Grand Place from white gloved anorexic high-school girls.

So how do you get there? Get on the 5 line and take it to its terminus (Erasamus), walk out of the station and continue to walk in the direction that the metro was going (away from Brussels), till you hit a traffic circle.Turn left onto Avenue Joseph Wybran (Postweg 2) and walk (or drive) till you see the big red Neuhaus sign on the right (just past the city limit sign). It's a big great gray monolith of a building up on the hill. (You can also choose to short-cut through the ULB medical parking from the Metro too.) It's really only about a five minute walk from Erasamus, but be prepared for rogue, ninja, women pensioners ready to pinch your cheeks and confront you and your chocolate covered, swollen face as you're carrying a sack of bon bons home. I had one pop out from behind a tree and say "ah somebody found the chocolate store!" I hung my head down and mumbled "Oui madam, je suis grosse." This is what I refer to as the walk of shame.

Neuhaus Chocolate Shop Outlet
Hours: 9-6 (18:00) Mon-Sat

02 March, 2013

Best Hostel In Brussels

Sleep Well easily has one of the best located Hostels in Brux.
When I was traveling around Europe a few months back, it became quite easy to tell what were the best hostels in cities like Rome (The Yellow) or in Krakow (Goodbye Lenin), but recently I found myself in need of accommodation right here in Bruxelles, and unfortunately there wasn't a clear consensus as to where to stay. To make matters worse, many of the hotels are cheaper than hostels, so why would most people pay more for a hostel than private accommodation? The answer is of course, obvious, to those of us who commonly travel in hostels.

  • free breakfast
  • to meet people
  • better locations (centrally located)
  • bars inside of the hostels
  • parties

Of course Brux is slow this time of year. The hostel was not what you would say is a "rocking" place, and indeed the bar is minuscule (which matters little since you're feet from some of the greatest bars in the world). This of course is something that Sleep Well, the hostel we stayed at needs to work on; but, we adored the vending machines which were cheap and the availability of shampoos and soaps for sale at the front desk.. But you can't get more centrally located then where Sleep Well is. It's literally in the back-alley of the biggest shopping and tourist area of Brussels. The metro is less than five minutes (Rogier), and the rooms are absolutely immaculate and amazing (oh and hot showers too [almost too hot]). Our room even had a flat-screen television. 

Now, you must understand, Sleep Well is still under renovations from a huge fire that occurred about a year ago that burnt the place down, but because of this it's likely to be the nicest (and safest) hostel in Brussels.

I would have preferred baguettes (pain francais)  instead of American bread at breakfast, and they should expand their bar, but you really can't beat Sleep Well in my opinion, simply because of it's amazing location. Something you will appreciate when you visit the real bars near Grand Place (just a few minutes walk away), and want to find you bed at the end of the night.

01 March, 2013

Where to Eat Testicles?

A truly authentic Belgian style restaurant in Brussels.
Never thought I'd ever title a blog-post that.

There's something to be said about Brussels culinary history. Mention horse in the U.K. and people flip, but to Belgians, they're mouths begin to water. Of course I always thought downing a horse was the peak of my extraordinary and authentic Belgian cuisine experiences, but I was wrong. My friend Nino took me and Shannon last weekend to Restobieres, a very cool, and very Belgian restaurant that sells everything from rabbit to testicles. That's right, you heard me, testicles!

Called choesels, it's one of those dishes many expats don't even know about, and tourists would never know about. Even many of the Belge, while familiar with the dish are unlikely to have consumed them. A century ago, bull's balls were the epitome of high culture in Brussels, as the Anderlecht slaughterhouse turned out meat scraps for locals. The problem apparently was that choesels are a labor intensive dish that can take nearly an entire day to prepare.

Rabbit in wine sauce.

While I'll admit there was quite a bit of a mental obstacle to get over, I was convinced if I had ate horse, calamari, and octopus while in Europe, then testicles wouldn't be the dish that conquered me.

So I dug in and swallowed those balls.

To be honest, they weren't too bad, though I think I preferred Shan's rabbit. Honestly they tasted just like beef, cooked in sauce.

The truth is, the restaurant and the food was awesome. I think perhaps I've finally reached the summit of weird foods in Brussels, but I'm always on the search for something new. So if you fancy to know où manger des choesels, (Where to eat testicles?) then look no further than Restobieres.

The money-shot: choesels.

Two Worlds Collide

Shannon and me on top of the Eiffel Tower
It's been over two months.

My ability to suppress emotions and thoughts has even surpassed my own expectations. When memories, or "homesickness" for Europe creeps in, I'm able to "replace" the thought with something else conscientiously, and suppress that memory. I find it somewhat ironic that it's necessary for me to do this with what are typically brilliant, amazing, and wonderful memories, but how else can I function? What amazing things lay beyond the limits of normal, if I recall even for just an instance that just beyond my reach? Universes might collapse.

Of course I never felt like the first ending, was ever the end. I've been waiting, asleep, dormant waiting to wake again from everyday life.

Shannon at Delices et Saveurs near
the north train station. Best Napoleons e

I'm no longer the person I was when I left for Belgium, nor am I the person who came back. I'm something else all together, someone who wonders what happens if I lot the monster out? What happens if I could somehow find myself transported far-far away, to do it over again? What if I could bridge these realities?

That would never happen.

Serve The City feeding the homeless at Gare Du Nord in Brussels.
But then, last Friday was Shannon's birthday. I had been planning a surprise for her for weeks. I wanted her to know how special she was in my life for giving me the gift she did the previous semester. I wanted to give her a chance to experience what I did.

So I took a chance.

I emailed her professors, got her excused, and got everyone in on it.

Then on Thursday, as we made our usual commute to UNCG, and instead of turning left, I turned right. I changed directions, I changed destiny, and we boarded a plane and left this existence.

The next day after we awoke from the flight, and we landed in Paris.
Just steps from Petillon Metro, we walked over to the VUB and Vesalius College.

We visited the catacombs, ate a mille feuille, we climbed the Eiffel Tower, we stayed with the Monks at a hostel, and we walked the snow covered streets of Montmartre.

Then I did the one thing I said I'd never do again. We boarded a Thaly's train for Brussels.

I went home, and Shannon was right there with me.

...and it was amazing, we were amazing...

This is the look Christie gave me after telling her one of my ideas.
I was reminded shortly after, some thoughts should stay inside
my head, and never come out.
We fed the homeless at Gare Du Nord train station, drank absinthe, visited the beer cave of Delirium, had an incredible meal of rabbit and choesels  (yes I said testicles), ate pita-durums and waffles till our eyes popped, and completely forgot that back home, the other us were doing homework, living a menial life, as European us giggled through the snow covered streets at midnight.

I was glad to be back. It was as if I never left, but I knew that come Monday morning, we'd be back on a flight to the U.S. I always go back, because that's what you must do, but in some parallel universe there's a version of me that remembered what I had chosen to forgot. The dream is what really happened, and somewhere in my brain is my true reality. But till I'm ready to remember, my mind remains a bunch of shattered pieces, a self-made purgatory that protects me from myself, and others, of what I'm capable of causing when two worlds collide.