Saturday, December 31, 2005

things that go through your head when you can't open your eyes

So it is nearly midnight here in Brussels and I haven't exactly ended this trip with a bang. We got to bed "tres late" last night and slept in till after noon. As soon as I woke up I made a very unfortunate discovery- I couldn't open my eyes. And then I recognized the very familiar signs of an eye infection... So Tara and Deborah went out and enjoyed their last day in town, and I stayed in with my eyes closed most of the day. Not asleep mind you, just with my eyes closed. Not that they will really fully close- they are too swollen for that. And they won't fully open either. So I've been hanging out listening to DVDs on my laptop with a warm rag over my slitted eyes all day. On the bright side, I've written an entire book in my head, and even managed to get several pages of it written out on paper (which is complicated seeing as I can't fully see the pages).

But let's talk about more fun things than my swollen nasty eyes. (But feel free to contemplate how it is I am going to navigate the airport (with Tara) tomorrow and driving home from the airport when I can't open my eyes like a normal person.)

I really do love traveling in Europe. I don't say this to be a snob, because trust me, I do this the budget way. I stay with friends, I buy the plane tickets on sale, and I don't buy anything here that I could have just bought in the States. I don't live the high life when I'm traveling.

But I truly love experiencing the new cultures. I try to shy away from the tourist attractions for the most part and see what the locals do. In other words if it says "English Menus Available" I most likely won't eat there. Here in Brussels I have discovered how very interesting it is that everyone speaks different languages. Both French and Flemish are the national languages and so every single sign, every announcement, etc are made in both languages. It has made me realize how incredibly annoying it would be if the US were to adopt a second language officially. (Although I'm an advocate of finally making English the official language.) Everyone here is very friendly and understanding when I don't speak their language, after all, every other person in Brussels doesn't speak their language. While I do think American school children should be required to learn a second language, I really don't believe we should make a second official language. But on the other hand, we should make our major cities more internationally tourist friendly. For instance, Metro fare card dispensing machines should be in multiple languages. Having had to deal with "metro" machines in 5 different countries now (3 on this trip), and only one having instructions in English, I have complete sympathy for new immigrants and tourists to our country who have not yet mastered the language.

Food is always one of my favorite adventures when traveling. On this trip I have discovered that french bread in France is a dozen times better than crusty hard french bread in the States. Here it is very soft and doesn't have such a sour taste as it can in the States. And hot chocolate varies greatly from country to country too. In Amsterdam it tasted more like hot water. In France it wasn't very sweet, and was served with 2 sugar cubes on the side. I had to put in both, and it still wasn't quite sweet enough. But in Brussels it is absolutely divine. The regular chocolate in all 3 countries was pretty much found in shops all over the place, and was equally wonderful in all 3 countries. I did get to live out my life long desire to try out some of the purest cacao found in a piece of candy. Trust me, this was such a dark chocolate that the store actually tried to convince me not to eat it. It wouldn't be good to most people. But being the dark chocolate connoisseur that I am, I ate it. It isn't something you eat to enjoy, let's put it that way. But it really was some amazing and pure dark chocolate.
Belgian waffles in Belgium are a hundred times better than Belgian waffles from IHOP or your home waffle iron. And somehow, French Fries are better in Belgium than in France.

I will never get tired of learning about new cultures and meeting people from different countries. I wish more Americans would and could travel and experience different walks of life. Just a few days in a foreign country would really open up the eyes of so many people. I will never forget when I was in Prague a few years ago watching TV. It was the day Saddam Hussein had been captured and I was watching the news coverage in a hotel room with a friend. The international news kept saying "The Americans claim to have caught Mr. Hussein in this tiny hole today." The disdain and unconvinced tone in the reporter's voice made it very clear that he did not think the American troops had really caught him. But if you turned on an American news website, it was more than clear that they had caught the real Saddam. I was so frustrated, and really wanted another American around to celebrate with. But instead there was no one there who could understand my happiness. Americans don't know how the rest of the world perceives us, which is unfortunate. They don't know that the only view most Europeans will ever have us is from the TV shows they get from us. That tends to be the more popular FOX syndicated shows, ie- X Files, 90210, and the West Wing. And we all know how representative those shows are of real life. When was the last time an American watched a popular Euro TV show? (Other than Wallace and Grommitt videos.) Do they have any idea what the day to day life is like for a German? Belgian? Brit? Probably not.

One of the more surprising aspects of this trip was discovering how much I loved Amsterdam. I never would have guessed that the true red white and blue American girl that I am would love a socialist country with legalized prositution, gay unions, and recreational drug use. Who would have seen that one coming? But in the end, the absolute charm of the canals, the beautiful old buildings mixed with tasteful modern buildings, and all of the alleys and shops, just won my heart. I couldn't help but think about the history of the city and the people there and where that city is today. Surprisingly, I learned a lot from the art. I've visited the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh museum, and the Louvre this week. (Not bad for a girl who's actually not so much into art.) Which basically means I got to compare the artwork from the French and Italians of the 14-16th centuries to that of the Dutch 14-16th centuries. (For those needing better references, think Da Vinci's interpretation of religious events, or of all the religious paintings that involve multiple naked people, for the French and Italians, and "Girl with a Pearl Earring" for the Dutch.) One of the things that struck me as I looked at all of the Calvinist, Puritanical, Dutch paintings was how no one smiled. And the women rarely faced forward. There was one painting where the woman was not only facing forward, but she didn't look like a stiff board. This painting was considered to be racy and heretical in its day because the painter allowed the woman to look so informal and casual. How shocking! But at the same time, a few hundred miles to the south in other countries, the French are drawing naked angels and cupids into every picture possible. The Notre Dame is adorned with more beauties than one person can take in. But up in Amsterdam the Calvinists and Puritans are pulling out the tapestries in the cathedrals, and even destroying the organs. (Turning previously Catholic churches into puritan chapels.) Is it really surprising that the people in Amsterdam are so oppressed that they got on boats and left to establish new settlements in the Americas?

But now Amsterdam has almost no religion in it. I walked around all day there and can't remember seeing one church. (In all other European cities the churches are found everywhere!) They were the first to legalize gay civil marriages, recreational drug use, establish cannibus bars, and have legalized prostitution. Did you know that if a prostitute in Amsterdam contracts AIDS she is required to report it to her union, encouraged to "retire," and is given a subsidized flat to live in? This is done to help her find new employment and keep AIDS from spreading. All this in a country that a few hundred years ago found the painting "Girl with a Pearl Earring" to be shocking and racy.

Its an interesting lesson in what oppression and failure to compromise and create understanding will get you. Oh and just for the record, I never once saw a stoned man wandering the streets of Amsterdam. And the only time I was really aware of cannibus use was standing outside a youth hostel next to the Anne Frank house. (In other words, where no one but American youths hang out.) It wasn't a rampant problem with every other person you meet stoned on pot.

Among other things those are some of the lessons and thoughts that have gone through my head this week. Some other quick lessons I've learned- always bring a long shoulder bag, rather than a small purse, when sight seeing. Never assume that just bringing a pair of back up contact lenses will save you. Glasses are a better back up option. (which obviously i didn't bring with me) When you are debating on whether or not to bring long johns or another pair of shoes with you, the answer is bring both. And a trip is exactly what you make of it. If you knew the full details of this trip (lost luggage, bad weather in paris, eye infections, missing out on 2 of the things i wanted to do most, etc) you wouldn't blame me if I just wanted to whine and complain that it was a horrible trip. But instead, I've discovered that its all about how you want to see it and feel about it. I can laugh it off and make the most of it. So what if I spent a whole day in the flat unable to see anything? I now have a great story about how to blow up VCR's and make mac and cheese without directions in English. (Bev, if you are reading this, I have a lot of explaining to do.) I still had a fun trip. And on the bright side, it happened on the last day here, when I was too exhausted to do much anyway. It didn't all happen on Tuesday.

I'll be back in the States tomorrow, barring any unforseen mishaps (get it? un-fore-SEEN? i can't SEE anything. ha ha. i crack me up.) Bon annee everyone! And ciao y'all!


  1. what were the two things you didn't get to do? red light district? and...?

  2. Seeing Sarah! (Hi Sarah!)


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