Hello everyone. If I were to write all that I wish to express, this post would be extremely long. Plus, I have much to do. Therefore, I am going to try my best (as Mark Twain knows – a difficult task) to make this short.
This past weekend, Krystyn and I left for Dublin airport at midnight on Friday morning for our long-anticipated trip to Belgium. It was my first Ryanair flight, but despite all the horror stories I’ve heard, it was remarkably smooth!
We arrived in Brussels around 9:30 am, quite fatigued and disoriented. The free airport wi-fi would not connect, the info line was long, the bathrooms cost half a euro and we couldn’t find a map. Plus, it was overcast! Finally, we found a hotel that had wi-fi and free maps, and I found a free app called “Visit Brussels.” I should mention here that the reason we desperately needed wi-fi was that we needed to connect with our host, Jacques Schreiner.
Initially, Krystyn and I thought we’d be able to stay with a family from a church in Belgium that is affiliated with Cornerstone City Church. However, things were not set in stone and as our trip approached, we found this would not be possible. So, we turned to couchsurfing…have you ever heard of it? It is an online forum for people who want to travel inexpensively and authentically by staying with locals in the area they are visiting. It’s a really neat concept. Hosts and surfers have online profiles with references so you can determine who is a good (and safe) fit for you.
Back to Jacques. He was one of the five couchsurfing hosts who responded to me and the only one able to accommodate us. When we connected with wi-fi, we found a message from him regarding where to meet up that evening. After that, things started to go more smoothly. We knew where we’d be staying, the sky cleared up and we began to find our way around the city.
We began with the Palais du Justice, a majestic courthouse dedicated to King Leopold II. From there, we could see the view of “downtown” Brussels – literally downtown as the Palace is on a hill.
After that, we headed to the Royal Palace, even grander than the first. By then, the sun was out in full splendor, and we enjoyed a walk through the royal gardens as well. I have to say that the Lord blessed us amazingly with the weather. It felt like the weather you’d expect in an ideal September – pleasant, sunny, warm with a slight autumnal crispness to the air.
From there, we headed to the European Parliament and toured the museum there. It was neat, but after running around all day on 3 hours of sleep, we needed a break. Walking back to the city centre, we contemplated dinner. We both felt like a warm Indian meal, preferably in front of a fireplace in comfy chairs. High expectations, right? Well, we stumbled on just a place…however, we got a rude surprise when we were charged for our water. Alas.
We still had several hours before meeting Jacques. Until then, we hoped to rest in a coffee shop. On our way towards the meeting location, we came upon the absolutely adorable streets of Brussels, with the chocolate shops, waffle vendors, boutiques and artisan tents. It was getting toward dusk, an accordion was playing and I felt in paradise.
Later that evening, we arrived at the Bourse Stock Exchange Building where we’d arranged to meet Jacques. Soon, we spotted him and a lady. We warmly greeted and were introduced to Isabelle, the girlfriend of his best friend. They were extremely kind and asked if we’d like to go out that night or go straight home. Krys and I were both tired, but we sensed they wanted to go out, so we agreed. Isabelle wanted to take us to someplace authentic and not touristy. It was my first experience in a bar! I got Schweppes tonic (my not drinking confused Jacques and Isabelle)…but it was tasty and I was happy. The others got various Belgian brews and we tried to chat over the many voices. Both Belgians had good English, but Isabelle sometimes struggled to understand us. Overall, it was a fun time. Krys even attracted the attentions of a drunk Belgian man, who became smitten with her. He kept trying to engage her in Dutch, Flemish and French conversation while trying to cheer her glass. When we left, he kissed her (and my) hands. QUITE the experience. It felt a bit surreal.
Afterwards, we all walked to the metro, where Krys, Jacques and I got on the train to travel to where his car was parked. Jacques is a 35 year old IT consultant originally from France, with interests in travel, hiking, adventures and beer. Our conversation was very fluid and we felt instantly comfortable. Arriving at his place 15 minutes outside of the city, we were enamored of his spacious Nordicly furnished flat and the green, peaceful surroundings of the suburb. He was quite the generous host!
The next morning, he went to the bakery to buy us pan du chocolate – a pastry which I had never tried. Both he and Krys were astonished at this, but I concluded that it is best to try such things first in Belgium.
We then met up with Isabelle in the city for a full day of flea marketing, vintage shopping and experiencing the culture of the town. We had so much fun! Isabelle showed us places we would never have found and taught us things we’d never have known if we had been on our own. That is what makes couchsurfing so delightful and amazing. For example, she took us to an antique emporium – an enormous building full of rooms outfitted in the most unique vintage decor. Such fun!
Later in the day, we all went out to dinner at a restaurant far from the tourist traps. I enjoyed a meal of stoemp, bread and salad. Stoemp is a national Belgian dish composed of savory mashed potatoes and vegetables. It was perfectly delightful.
After dinner, we discussed what to do the next day. Guess what? They offered to take us on a day trip to The Netherlands! We were beyond thrilled. So, the next morning, we packed a picnic and headed off the brilliant weather to the North Sea! 1.5 hours later, we were in the quaintest Dutch village. Abutting a sailboat dock, the town was filled with cobblestone streets, small shops and beautiful homes and gardens. We sampled some local fried kipling, popped in shops and enjoyed the lovely weather.
After exploring, we settled down for our picnic by the dock. In the car, Jacques had convinced me to try my first alcohol. I sensed that he thought it odd that I hadn’t had any, so I figured (like the pastry) that Belgium was the best place to have my first. It was actually quite nice. 🙂 So, I had my first beer – a high quality Belgian brew – in Veere, Netherlands.
After that, we moved on to a town several miles away which abutted the shore. As we climbed the stairs over the dike, we saw below us the most beautiful beach and the wide North Sea in front of us. Then, like children, we frolicked in the waves and sand, blown every which way by the wind, but enjoying every minute of it! When we arrived home that evening, Jacques made us a lovely dinner and then we settled down for our last night.
In the morning, he drove us to the airport. Can you believe it? Then, bidding us farewell, he told us that we were charming and intelligent and that it had been a pleasure to host us. We were so overcome with emotion. He had just purchased a bike and had been looking forward to riding it that weekend, but instead, he’d hosted us. We felt so indebted to him, but we knew that all involved had had an amazing time. As we turned to leave, he told me that his favorite girl’s name is Sarah…and that after this weekend, he hadn’t changed his mind. What a sweet little compliment.
I believe that weekend was the best trip of my lifetime.