What’s wrong with me?!?

This morning we decided to take a day trip, and where better to day trip to than Belgium! Yes, we loaded ourselves onto the train and 3 hours later arrived in Bruges. For mor information on this adorable town consult the post titled “We did enough dark halls at the last place!” or any of the 3 posts after. The trip was not overly exciting, just a shop & wander day, but that was exactly what we were looking for. We walked around the various tourist & non-tourist shops until we found the market squares. This central square had a raised platform in it’s center and little market stalls all around it. The stalls were mainly food & treat vendors, but some also had crafts, jewelry & toques. The platform held a small skating rink. The degree for which everything had been Christmas-a-fied was magnificent!
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As a break for our feet and to warm up a little we sat down for waffle and tea/coffee. We couldn’t come to Belgium and not have one last Belgian waffle…and by now the thought of eating them doesn’t even make Justine want to throw up anymore! It was a waffle with just powdered sugar on it…simple & sweet 🙂

By this point we couldn’t believe we were yet to visit a chocolate shop! You may recall that the place is teeming with them! We popped into Dumont, the Rick Steves recommended place, and noticed they had a Christmas card from the Steves Family…Kris was super jealous! We picked up a box to munch on…yum! yum! yum! We visited a few other chocolatiers on our way back to the center. Here we parked ourselves at the boards of the skating rink and analyzed everyone’s abilities. We wanted to be out there soooooo badly, but didn’t want to go out in rental skates. They were crappy, molded plastic…not cool to skate snobs like us! Instead we laughed when people fell and rejoiced when someone who had any skill took to the ice.

Our plan was to recreate the wonderous supper we had not once but twice during our previous visit to Bruges…but the gods of spaghetti seemed to be against us. The restaurant where we had chowed down on super cheap, super delicious pasta had closed the kitchen until 6 o’clock, and seeing as we had to be on a train at 6:58 this didn’t give us enough time to eat….especially since we anticipated we’d get lost finding the station. Instead we found another restaurant on the same side street and ate an early dinner there. Justine still had spaghetti, while Kristin opted for the ham & cheese omlette. The food was yummy enough to make up for the dinner disappointment.
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After supper we went back to the market square to see it all lit up. We have this whole thing down: you need to eat supper early enough that you are inside while it gets dark, then when you go back out it’s into a Christmas wonderland! The important buildings were floodlit (as all important buildings in Europe always are at night) but the rest of the square was colorfully decorated with festive cheer. Around the skating rink were magical white lights to match the white tree in it’s center. We watched a bit more skating until we were too cold and headed towards the rail station.
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On the way we munched on caramel popcorn (for Justine) and sugared nuts (for Kristin). As expected, we got a little lost, but the historic center is a circle with a ring road so once you get to the edge it’s easy enough to get anywhere. When we boarded the train we realized this was the last time we would be using our Eurail passes…they have done us well! We have taken 89 trains, 2 buses, 1 boat and several metros thanks to those passes…money well spent!

What We Missed:
Skating…or more specifically, our skates.

Love, Luck & Lipton Teas,

Mussels in Brussels…Doug from Belgium & Such

Dear Journal,

I’m afraid this entry may not have the usual pizaz to it. My travels as of late have not had the dramatic story lines that I was becoming accustomed to. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t been having a good time!

From Paris I caught a train to Belgium. It seemed like a pretty cool country from what I’ve read about it. I decided Belgium stop #1 would be Bruges. The touristy part of town looks like a perfectly preserved medieval city. It’s so cute! The unfortunate truth though is that for a city to look old like this there had to be a period of severe economic downturn in it’s past. This era of suffering means the town is too poor to modernize and therefore remains stuck in the past. Not so good for the ancestors, but great for the people of the present! Tourism booms in a place like Bruges. The center of town is the Market Square. This was normal for a town in the middle ages. It is always a big open square (where the market is held…who would have guessed…) with the town hall and clock tower on one side. Here’s me at the Bruges Belfry, or Bell Tower in English.
I think one of the things Belgians might be most famous for is their chocolate. Everyone knows Belgian chocolate is hard to top. I knew that while I was in this country I had to try some, and Bruges is definately the place to do it! There are chocolate shops on every block here! I love it…although my waistline is not such a big fan. I stopped in the most adorable shop to browse the selection and noticed the ladies whipping up a fresh batch. My habit of asking an annoying amount of questions paid off again as the offered to let me join them. It was an interesting experience, learning to make chocolates, and I think I will bring my newly acquired knowledge home with me. Anyone want me to make them a treat?

I was loving the Belgian culture so I decided to stop in on Brussels. This Belgiums larest and capital city. It isn’t the quaint little tourist village stuck in the past, but a urban mix of old & new with a cool “real working city” feel to it. I made sure to stop in and see the major sights, like the Atomion. This big metal structure was built for a World’s Fair in 1958. It is a model of a atomic structure magnified by 165 billion times! Now the structure is rather vast (big enough that you can actually travel through the tubes and visit multiple floor exhibits in each ball) but the atom must be really really tiny for it to be magnified that many times!
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I also saw the Manneken Pis. This is a statue of little boy peeing and has been adopted by not only Brussels, but all of Belgium, as a unofficial mascot/symbol. It is a little odd, but I like quirky, so I’m cool with it. You could hear a lot of tourists commenting on how small he is, but I didn’t see it. Sure he wasn’t life-sized for a regular boy, but he was still bigger than me!

Being Brussels has taught me there is more to Belgian cuisine than just chocolates. Have you ever heard of a Belgian waffle? They started right here. Although the people here find us North Americans rather odd for eating waffles for breakfast. They eat them as an afternoon snack with tea or coffee and they usually just eat them with sugar, no syrup, and no crazy toppings…but I couldn’t resist:
Now I know you’ve all heard of the French Fry, but what I just learned is that the only thing French about them is the way they are cut. To French something means to make it into thin slices, like a fry. So technically you could have French carrots or radishes, even if they don’t sound as yummy. So, you ask, if the French is how the fries are cut, where were they invented? The answer: Belgium of course! Why else would I be talking about them now?! The other note I’d like to make about fries is that here they eat them with mayo…odd for a ketchup-lover but quite delicious.
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They was one more edible delight I had to try: Mussels in Brussels! Not only delicious, but also fun to say! They make mussels every way you could possibly want them…but I went with au natural so that I could experience the real strong flavor of the mussels 🙂

When I disembarked from my next train I found myself in Amsterdam. Amsterdam is a city built around an area of man-made canals that for a concentric U-shape around and through the oldest part of the city. They are extremely scenic and offer opportunities for superb photos. They also appeared to be a great place for both locals and tourists to spend a lazy day when the heat gets too much.
Amsterdam has another side to it though. In an attempt to combat hard drug use the cities police force has decriminalized majiuana use in the city. This means that although it is not technically legal, no one has been arrested for use or possession in over 30 years. What is legal is prostitution. And there is a whole area of town called the Red Light District that is the center of this industry. I was naive enough to believe this would be far enough from the city center that I would not stumble across it while riding my bike through town (everyone rides bikes here!). Silly Doug, you couldn’t have been more wrong! The Red Light Dostrict is actually only a couple of blocks from both the central rail station and main tourist/shopping strip. When I accidentally rode into the area I couldn’t believe my eyes. I was so shocked I rode my bike straight into the canal! The police laughed as they helped me out but comforted me by stating that they pull about 20,000 bikes out of the canal each year. I felt a bit better, but I assume most of those were stolen and tossed in and didn’t still have a rider on them! But at least I wasn’t one of the fools who drove their car into the water…that happens at least once a week here!

After the craziness of Amsterdam I needed a break, and where would I get a better one than in fairy-tale Luxembourg. This place looks like it’s straight from a storybook, with it’s old style houses, quaint roads of shops and beautiful valley views.
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Here I made a few new friends. I was taking a look at the Royal Palace when it happened. A car pulled up and two young men got out. They were well dressed & good looking and I immediately knew they were someone important. You might be thinking, “Doug you’re in front of the ROYAL Palace, how are you not putting this together?” but my guide book had said the place was rarely inhabited by the royal family so i didn’t jump to conclusions. I could have though because they were in fact the 2 eldest sons of th Grand Duke. The Grand Duke is like the King of Luxembourg, it just has a different name here (because Luxembourg is a Grand Duchy instead of a Kingdom). We got to chatting about the house and then the country in general. They were really great guys and I hope ot see them again. Maybe at the Queen’s garden party? And maybe by them I’ll be able to find a couple of nice girls to fix them up with…

Until next time…
Keep Smiling,

Do you have pulleys?

Our day started with a nutritious breakfast. The market is unfortunately only on Wednesdays so we had to go to an actual restaurant. The problem is that people here dont seem to e big on this meal so it is a lottle difficult finding a place serving more than just a coffee & a croissant. We walked to Market Square and looked at the breakfast deals advertised by each of the restaurants around it. We ended up at one place saying you got a hot drink, orange juice, bread & butter/croissant & jam and egg & bacon/sausage & beans. We each ordered our drink (cappuccino for Bean & hot milk for Kristin) with the bread and egg & bacon. They waiter mist have thought we were crazy because it turned out we got everything. The bread/croissant had been an “and” not an “or.” It turned out that our breakfast that we thought was a quite good deal was actually a really great deal!

Today we had one main goal, learn something about World War I. We had done our WWII day in France and it was time to inform ourselves about another important time in history.

The First World War is less well know than it’s successor. Unlike WWII this war had vague causes, no definite conclusion and was fought in mostly one location. We had looked into going on a guided tourof this area, like we did in Normandy, but the only tours we found were quite expensive, and we are just poor backpackers. We had read though that the In Flanders Fields Museum was exceptional so we decided that would be a good replacement. Before we begin with that though, here’s a little history lesson for those who don’t remember high school social studies or didn’t take classes on the war in University:

World War I began with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in June 1914. This event triggered action in a continent full of tension. Secret pacts and alliances had already formed 2 sides, the Triple Entente (France, Britain, Russia) and the Triple Alliance (Germany, Austria-Hungary Empire, Italy) and a military arms race had helped build the tension. Following the assassination, Germany and Austria-Hungary invaded. Germany had devised their Schlieffen plan: quickly attack and defeat France through neutral Belgium and then turn towards Russia…spoiler alert, neutral worked out a lot better for Switzerland than Belgium.

The In Flanders Fields Museum is located in Iepers (or Ypres in French). We got off the train in Iepers, looked at when we could catch trains back to Bruges, walkd out of the station, and stopped. This was the first moment we realized we had no idea where we were going. Normally we are Google Maps biggest users, but our minds must have been affected by our current sickly state because we had not even thought to see where in town the museum was. Intelligently, Justine pointed out the church spire. That would be the center of town and a good place to start looking. So we set off, crossed a street…and happened upon a helpful town map. Hurray! In the end we had been going the right way but it was nice to have that confirmed.

For us Iepers was only 2 trains & 2 hours away. But in WWI, Ypres was the center of everything. Belgium was neutral but the Germans invaded anyways. The Belgians fought back valiantly but didn’t have the manpower. The entire town was destroyed and the majority of the battles on the Western Front occurred in this area. When French and British forces arrived the soldiers dug in and trench warfare began…two sides of trenches with No Man’s Land in the middle.

We learned about all of this as we made our way through the museum. This was another place that it was just hard to find the words for. There were displays telling you about the causes, battles and ending of the war. There were display cases showing uniforms and weapons. There were original documents including recruitment posters, letters and trench diagrams. It was all very informative & interesting. This alone would have been a good museum…but this is not a regular museum; it was so much more. It would have to be described more as an experience. There was a constant soundtrack of soldiers yelling, gunshots, planes soaring over and once a bomb being dropped. Each display was set up with so much to look at and so much detail that it drew you in. And they were no just the historic facts. There was detailed accounts of what it was actually like to be enlisted or in the trenches. There was an audiovisual account of the first invasion. And a sort-of dramatic recreation of walking through No Man’s Land. And then there was the personal touch. One area just talked of the Christmas truce and how soilders abandoned their weapons to meet between the trenches and exchange gifts & sing carols…enemies as friends for one special day. And each section featured at least 2 quotes from the people actually involved. Some were funny, some scary, but so many were just so sad. It was an incredible experience that left you so humbled and thankful. But as thankful as you are to the soldiers you cant forget that this wasnt really the end…

Eventually the Triple Entente was able to push the Germans back to Germany and the Treaty of Versailles was signed on November 11, 1918 to formally end the war. However, the conflict was no where near resolved. New borders were drawn in Europe and many new countries created. The Austria-Hungary Empire disappeared and Germany lost large amounts of land. The League of Nations was formed to little success and an unhappy and finacially broke Germany was forced to take responsibility for the war and pay for damages. The situation in Germany was bleak and it’s citizens unhappy. They saw themselves as the victims and there was a revival in nationalism. The stage was perfectly set for Htiler and the rise of Nazism. The country wanted to get the rest of Europe back for WWI and he was the one to get them there.

And to add to that, there was an incredible sign at the exit of the museum. It told of the number of armed conflicts the red cross has been involved in since the “war to end all wars.” The last update was done in 2008 and read 126…

On the way back to the train station we saw this tiny pansy plant growing up through the crack in between the sidewalk & a building. It wasn’t anywhere near a park or anywhere pansies were growing. It was just there fighting through the urban expanse to be seen. It seems like such a “why did you even notice that” thing but after that museum it was nice to see something so natural. It was just so innocent & hopeful. It made us feel so good we took a photo…
PS. This makes picture us think of something our friend Jocelyn would have on her blog/tumblr. You can find her here: http://cookingbymyownrules.wordpress.com/

When we got back into Bruges it was early evening. We had a waffle to tide us over until supper. We opted for the plain sugar waffles today and man were they good! We wanted another one when we finished but we resisted temptation.
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After waffle time we just walked. We know we do that a lot here but it’s such a nice place to just leisurely wander through. We looked at the menus of every restaurant we passed, trying to pick out the perfect place for supper. In the end we picked a spot right on the center square. This doesn’t sound like it would be the place with the best deal, but we did our research! We ended up with a little 3-course meal (like in Paris). In the end we were very happy with the quantity & quality of the food for the money! But to the food…First Course: Justine had a nice homey vegetable soup. Kristin had cheese croquettes, mainly because she was curious what it was. If you don’t know (and can’t tell from the picture) it was basically fried cheese…yum!
Second Course: Mussels! This is a Belgium specialty so we had to get it while we were here! The were au natural…meaning they were boiled with some onions & spices and that’s it. Then they were served with some French fries (another Belgian specialty).
They were sooooooooo delicious! We gobbled them right up…look at the carnage left over:
Third Course: We were given some tasty ice cream with whipped cream and a little waffle cone wafer.

By the time we left dinner it was starting to get dark…our first real evening in Belgium! We’ve been sick…that’s our excuse & we’re sticking to it, but we still felt the urge to take a photo to prove we had actually stayed out late-ish one night.

Now time to pack for travel tomorrow!
Love, Luck & Life in the Trenches,

PS. Happy Anniversary Kummer Parents!