“Do you know what’s awesome about snow?” Katie asked. “It’s not rain!”
The two of you scuttled over icy sidewalks on the outskirts of Brussels’ city center. You were still shaking the dregs of sleep out of your head–that early-morning Ryanair flight had you knocked out the moment that cabin was pressurized. Only when the intense muscle cramps became unbearable, due to your contorted body, did you awaken and gaze out the window at the blanketed, white landscape many thousands of feet below.
A crew member announced that it was -2 degrees Celcius… below freezing.
What did you expect? Warm?
It’s the middle of January!
At least is wasn’t raining. Ireland was soaked. You mean, really soaked. So wet that even the Irish couldn’t believe it. Many of the local roads were flooded, and even the on-ramp to the motorway was closed (the very ramp you needed to get to the airport) with a car abandoned in the middle of a small lake.
And wet always makes cold feel colder.
At least in Brussels, it’s dry. But yes, still cold.
So cold that you lamented pathetically when you learned that Katie had abandoned her warm sweat pants back in Ireland. You’d wanted to wear them under your other pants. Nope. You got to freeze under the paper-thin layer of your warmest pants.
On the second day, which was -7 degrees, you were more prepared for the cold.
- 4 pairs of pants: over your undies, your shorts, your work pants, then your lightweight pants, and then your rain pants.
- 6 shirts: over your extra broad bra, a smartwool base layer, then a tank top, then another smartwool base layer, then a zipping jumper, then a rain coat, then a t-shirt wrapped around your face and neck.
- 2 hats: your beanie OVER the top of your cap.
- 2 pairs of medium-weight wool socks.
- 1 pair of cloves.
—and you were still uncomfortably (though tolerably) cold.
The snow was falling hard, and walking was more like waddling. You can’t begin to guess how many (or few) miles you actually trudged through. The going was cold and slow, but your patience was unlimited (except for moments low perilously low blood sugar).
How on earth did you spend six years in New England!? When temperatures would drop to well below zero in FAHRENHEIT, and the snow would be feet high? And frankly, between Seattle and Ireland, one would think you’d be far more acclimated to uncomfortable weather. What a terrible Viking you are!
This trip to Brussels was not your first. It was actually your fourth. You are reminded of the last time you were here, back in July of 2009 with Alexis. That was when you were still a young traveler.
Just as you did with Katie this time around, you did with Alexis. You landed in the Charleroi airport in the morning. You sat in some chairs after packing your bags correctly, and ate your Sli Na Bande on-the-go egg and cheese sandwiches as you mentally prepared for what was to come.
On foot, you exited the little airport and begin thumbing your way toward Ghent. Your first lift dropped you on the northern edge of the ring road around the city.
“Should we get going on to Ghent?”
“Well, since we’re here, why don’t we dip into Brussels and check it out for an hour or so, and then head out towards Ghent.”
Little did you know that it would be a near two-hour walk in the sweltering sun to get to the city center. Remember that little old lady–too eager to be helping you–ambling rapidly behind you–flanking you the whole time; you’d been utterly convinced that she was some unassuming professional gypsy pickpocket. You finally had to shake her.
Jesus, the sun that day… merciless. You sweat through your shirt and the straps of your backpack soaked up your salty fluids like a sponge.
But you made it to the Grande Place–Brussels’ most famous post-card-worthy tourist attraction. Alexis marveledat the square, and you again were delighted to be there.
The two of you sat at one of the outdoor tables and ordered a Trappist beer and a Belgian waffle. That’s when the journals came out–and that’s when you gave birth to the 10 euro per day budget.
You weren’t sure how it happened. You’d been out and about on the European continent before–by yourself. Twice. The first time, you did Belgium and France, mostly wwoofing. The second, you did a multi-city couchsurfing tour. 5 weeks. Well below 10 euros per day.
You suppose you’d simply regarded the bill on the table and reasoned that the luxury was a first-time experience, and worth every penny. What, with the effort of walking into the city from the ring road, the ambience and the company… worth it. Alexis savored her artisan beer and you thought back to the letter you’d sent her while alone and abroad. The random, lonely phone call to her from deep in the mountains of Slovakia. The words written, the Kundera references.
The message: traveling alone, while empowering and full of adventure and the unknown, is not preferable to traveling with someone you love. Someone with whom, years later, you can share all those memories with again. Forever. So yes, 10 euros, while well above what you were accustomed to spending, seemed like a reasonable amount to spend every day. An amount to keep you sufficiently rugged and honest, and still enough to enjoy the most costly aspects of foreign culture.
You knew–no, thought–at the time that she was someone you’d never let go. You knew you could say, “Hey! remember when we soaked ourselves in sweat when we thought we’d just dip into the city center of Brussels and then make it out and go to see something else?”
If you were still on speaking terms, you’d say to her, “Wasn’t it hilarious! After that beer and waffle? The walking all over the place under the weight of our way-too-heavy bags? That nap we took in the Park of Brussels, when we woke up and realized our light was fading. The hours of walking back out the way we came in? The realization that we would have to camp somewhere! Yeah, we found that polluted little patch of trees not to far off from the motorway on ramps, and we were looking every which way for rubbish and vagrancy.
“Remember the first time we pitched that over-priced piece of shit tent of ours–yeah, that one with the janky front porch that induced anxiety every time we put it up? Remember how small it was? How we couldn’t figure our how to fit ourselves and our bags inside? And we had no sleeping mats at all! We were rolling around on our pounding, sore hip sockets, trying to find comfortable positions, and then some jackass in the neighborhood thought it would be great to set of firecrackers, but in our sleepy, paranoid minds, we thought there was a homicidal maniac with a semi-automatic weapon coming for us just through the trees…
“Our very first camping experience inside a city was in Brussels. We woke the next morning and thought we could pack up, buy some breakfast, and then hitch hike out. Only within 20 minutes of walking, I became too weak to continue. And so we found a tiny little corner store and scored some bread and bananas, and I fell asleep in your lap on that bench while you patiently read a book. The sun got too hot, so we moved half a mile to a nearby park and rested in the shade. I was completely out of commission. I passed out again and slept for 3 or 4 hours, simply recovering from the previous day’s walking! You woke me as the sun was going down, and told me that we needed to do something. Like, have a plan! So we sprung for a restaurant meal at some Chinese place, in order to get the most bang for our buck. We licked those plates clean!
“And we camped again in those dodgy, polluted trees. All because we were total travel novices.”
Amazingly, you didn’t even bother to take out your camera and document a single moment of that whole fiasco.
Katie might wonder whether you are bored, seeing this city for the fourth time. But you know that you can look fondly over at her and say, “Hey,remember how I lost all of our maps on our very first day of travel on the continent? Yes. All of them. And remember how we failed to set our watched back one hour, and arrived desperately late at our host’s flat? Remember the next day when I wore every article of clothing I owned and we waddled for hours in the driving snow to find a supermarket that turned out to be closed, and then to another shopping street, only to remember that everything is closed on a snowy Sunday? Remember how amazing that cup of coffee was? Because 2 euros buys a beverage, a biscuit, a heater, and unlimited use of the restrooms. I could have sat there all day and written in my journal if I hadn’t been too cheap to buy myself another coffee.”
Little makes you happier than caffeine-induced inspiration after a long day’s walk in a foreign city.