My Spring Break began before the sun rose. Toting a camera bag and a satchel stuffed with necessities, I boarded a train and set off on the five-hour journey that would take me to Bruges, Belgium. This northwestern city of Belgium began the weeklong adventure that taught me a lot and tasted great.
Traveling independently gives you freedom
The original plan was to meet a pal in Bruges, but then her eardrum burst. She stayed home to recuperate, and I ventured onward. Her company would have been enjoyed, but the solitude granted me the freedom to leisurely move between attractions. (We probably would have opted for the same sights – we are pals after all.) I sat through an entire Flemish Catholic church service in the Basilica of the Holy Blood because the relic was a part of the ceremony. I climbed 366 steps of the Belfry to see a beautiful panoramic of the city while the bells reverberated through my skull. I went to another religious site, the Church of Our Lady, to see the only statue that left Italy during Michelangelo's life, which is Madonna and Child. In each of these places, I took time to appreciate and learn as much as I could.
View from the Belfry
Since I had arrived a little too late in the afternoon to adequately enjoy the tourist attractions on the first day, I decided to wander through the medieval city, camera in hand and no predetermined path in mind. Solo meandering allows you to stop, look and photograph as often as you want without restrictions from someone else's pace.
Dining alone sounds awkward, but with a pot of mussels in front of you, it's easy to forget you're partner-less. The mussels, a traditional Belgian dish, were served with fries. According to multiple sources – who may or may not have their facts right – American soldiers, eating fries, thought they were in France because of the French they heard around them. Hence the title "French fries," something the Belgians are a tad bitter about. I also tried some other Belgian foods alone: a lunch of delicious fish soup and toast, a local beer and a waffle.
A Belgian waffle
Couchsurfing keeps things interesting
A classmate and friend of mine, Henni, and I decided to meet in Brussels. She was able to secure us a place to stay with a local, named Gui, through Couchsurfing. He was an eccentric theater actor who knew a lot about the city despite the short time he'd lived there. With him as our guide, we explored the city's architecture and forest, tasted some Belgian beers and even saw a comedy show. Henni and I are not proficient French speakers, but we were still able to enjoy some of the jokes.
Henni and Gui in the garden before breakfast
Gui obliged to our request as tourists and showed us the highlights, like the Royal Palace and Manneken Pis, but he also insisted on taking us to his stomping grounds. We visited a few cozy bars and tried the "best fries in town." I was skeptical at first, but I doubt I will ever find fries that match that quality. Couchsurfing with Gui gave me the impression that I had moved to Brussels and was exploring my new home. It was nice to feel like an insider.
Befriending other hostel guests has its benefits
I had made it to my final city, Liege, and while journaling in the hostel's common area, I overheard the words "redneck" and "moonshine." When you hear something in English that reminds you of home, you approach strangers and inquire about their homes. Kam came from Canada, not Tennessee, but I think we bonded because of our nose rings. He suggested that we explore the city together, and since I didn't get a weird feeling in my gut, I decided to say yes. We climbed a lot of stairs – a set up a hill and a set in a cathedral tower. We got cranky from hunger and decided not to speak until we had eaten. We parted ways for a couple of hours and reunited later with no feelings hurt. He offered to be my "wingman" for the evening, and I laughed while he flirted with Belgian girls.
Kam in front of a BIP exhibit
The next day, Kam proposed exploring a science museum/aquarium. I requested to see the different exhibitions of the 9th International Biennial of Photography and Visual Arts that were located throughout the city. We did both, stopping for a simple and tasty lunch of Belgian bouletes and frites (meatballs and fries).
Jean-Claude Moschetti's Lopohin 02
Despite the short duration of our time together, I think I could adequately write a portion of Kam's biography. We were consistently candid, we frequently chuckled, and we delayed our departure a little too late, which brings me to the last lesson I learned.
Sometimes winging it does not work out
I left Liege with no real travel plan. I assumed that in Brussels I would be able to catch a train to somewhere in the Netherlands and then make my way back to Utrecht. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Like I said, I left in the evening, which meant I made it to Brussels at 11 p.m. There were no trains to anywhere in the Netherlands until the next morning. "Okay," I said to myself, "it's fine, just stay the night in the train station." I watched people, drank some coffee and tried to relax.
Around midnight, the trains became less frequent, which means less people were around. I was comfortable in my corner until a man approached me and offered me whiskey. I declined politely, but he didn't leave. He gestured to the nearby trashcan and reassured me that he could help acquire food or drink if I needed it. Again, I declined politely and cringed when he sat down beside me. I put on a brave face, but after he repeatedly offered me whiskey and inquired where my boyfriend was, I decided it was time to leave. He didn't seem aggressive, but I'm not strong or fast, and I didn't want to take my chances. I mostly didn't want my parents to be notified that I had been attacked in a train station late at night because I tried to be tough.
I was able to find a room in a nearby hotel that the concierge kindly discounted before I had even told him my story. Maybe I could have survived the train station, but I'm not upset about sleeping in a comfy bed or eating a delicious breakfast before coming home to Utrecht.
In a matter of days, the European adventures will continue as I travel to Berlin with two professors and my classmates.
Hannah Cather is a senior in journalism and electronic media. She is spending the semester in Utrecht, Netherlands studying European culture and journalism at Hogeschool University. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.