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,

That’s what I call window shopping! or May I draw your attention to the smell of stale urine…

This morning we got up and guess what? No vomit! It’s the little things that you normally take for granted that can sometimes make your day! Justine feels just fine this morning. Whatever was unhappy in her body yesterday seems to have left completely! She felt she could stay awake for more then 7 hours today! (That’s not a joke…she was seriously only awake for 7 hours yesterday)

Our room was a little chaotic this morning, seeing as it held 10 people and only one bathroom, but we managed to get ready and scarf down some breaky. Then we hit the streets, hopping on the tram and venturing into the city center. Our first stop of the day was the Anne Frank House. We knew the lines could get quite long in the afternoons so we thought going early morning would be better…and it definately was! We walked right in with no waiting (when we walked past later there was a line halfway down the block). Anne was born in Germany but her Jewish family fled Nazi Germany in the 1930’s. Here in Amsterdam the family found great success as the father, Otto Frank, owned his own business. When the Nazis invaded neutral Netherlands in 1940 things started out decent for the Jewish community but before long they were no longer allowed access into public buildings, later public transport and even forbidden to ride bicycles around the city. In 1942 Otto Frank signed over the deed of his company to his non-Jewish employees and his family went into hiding the the secret annex behind the factory. Hidden behind a bookcase was a flight of stairs leading up to a small set of rooms where the Franks & another family, the Van Pels, lived in constant fear.
(The building on the far right is the visitor center built later, but the top two floors next 2 houses are the ones the Franks occuied.)

The exhibit was exceptionally well done. The rooms were all empty as Otto Frank had requested they be left that way. But there was the odd display case with the belongings of the Frank family or the others who lived in the house. Or there would be a television with a video interview of someone who knew Anne. Or a simple black & white photo. The collection of things they had used and their strategic placement combined with the quotes from the book, aka Anne’s own thoughts & feelings & words, that were written everywhere…well it was an extremely moving experience. As we walked through the area the 8 people had lived in for over 2 years we couldn’t help but be amazed by the size. There were only a handful of rooms with the tiniest passages between them. But then again, they really couldn’t use that much space considering they couldn’t walk around during the day for fear that workers in the factory below might hear them. Anne’s room was plastered with pictures from magazines & postcards in an attempt to brighten things up…remember she was just 13 years old when they had went into hiding. It’s unimaginable to be a young girl and not able to go outside and run & play, breathe fresh air & feel the sunshine…it’s unimaginable to be any age and unable to do those things. As with most of the war stories we have heard so far we cannot imagine living through this. We just can’t wrap out heads around how that much hate could exist and be out there, readily exposed to the world.

The most gut-wrenching part was reading of each of the occupants’ fate. After 2 years in hiding, the families were betrayed by an anonymous call to the Secret Police. They were taken to Camo Westerbork on the eastern end of the Netherlands before transported to the Auschwitz extermination camp. The father of the van Pels family was gassed and 6 others fell sick and died within the camp. Anne contracted typhus and died in March 1945, just one month before the camp was liberated. The only survivor was Otto Frank.

If you wish to hear more of Anne’s story, there is a readily available source: the Diary of Anne Frank. All through her time in hiding Anne had kept a diary. When the family had been taken away it had been saved by one of her fathers employees, who later gave it to Otto Frank when it was known that Anne had not survived. It him a lo time to read it, but was incredibly impressed with his daughters ability to write when he did. He set out to get it published, as it had always been Anne’s dream to be an author when she grew up.

We finished at the house with just enough time to walk back to Dam Square and join in the 11:15 Sandeman’s New Europe walking tour. This company offers free walking tours in major cities throughout Europe. They then tell you about all their other tours & pub-crawls, which you do have to pay for and is where they make their money. But for the free tours, the guides only work for tips, so you know they will be entertaining. And ours most certainly was! Tim was a native to Holland (being the oldest & largest province of the Netherlands) and has been living in Amsterdam for a year & a half…not that you would know it listing to him. He had perfect English (which isn’t the surprising part…all Dutch children learn Dutch, French, German & English in school from the age of 8) with absolutely no accent. He sounded like he could hav come over with us from Edmonton. He was also extremely animated & totally hilarious. And yet was still able to be serious & solemn when the story called for it. Basically he was the ideal tour guide.

Lets start with a little history: The Golden Age of Amsterdam and the Netherlands was the 16th century. At this time the country was a leader of the spice trade and homebase for the East India Trading Company. Up to 700 boats would come to Amsterdam’s port every day! The Dutch were also a colonial power at this time, laying claim to the Dutch indies (later Indonesia). Eventually the British adopted and perfected the Dutch method of trading, and so ended the Dutch Golden Age. Below is the original head quarters of the East India Trading Company or VOC if not translated.
We also saw things like Amsterdams fattest bridge and the worlds skinniest house. It was seriously skinny! Skinny enough that I couldn’t have fit laying down width-wise. Houses in Amsterdam used ot be taxed based on how wide they were, so the goal was to make them super long & thin. It’s the little pink sliver in the photo below…

One major Amsterdam thing is the Coffeeshop. The city is known for it’s Coffeeshops that definitely don’t sell just coffee. In the 1970’s when the police decided to crack down on hard drugs instead of soft drugs. At this time, 1/75 people in Amsterdam was a heroine addict. It became dangerous to walk the streets. Meanwhile, the people smoking marijuana were causing no harm to thselves or others. The police cracked down on the hard-core addicts and now the streets of Amsterdam are very safe. And while marijuana is not legal, it is decriminalized (meaning no one has been arrested for possession of it in 30 years). As a result, Coffeeshops grew in popularity. But contrary to popular belief all of Amsterdam is not constantly stoned. Only 5% of the population actually smokes weed, one of the lowest in Europe (the highest is Italy). The Coffeeshops get most of their business from the tourists.

As you can see we learned a lot about Amsterdam from Tim…and we should have considering we covered the whole of the city center in over 3 hours of tour! Not bad, especially when you consider it was free! (well we did end up giving our spectacular guide his well deserved tip) We then went for delicious lunch. We had decided, since it was already 3 o’clock, that we would have a larger late lunch and a snack for supper (instead of the reverse). We went for an old dish native to the area: Dutch Pancakes. Rick Steves had recommended a local place that had wonderful pancake creations. Kristin had a cheese & chicken pancake and Justine had a cheese & mushroom one. They were scrumptious. And as a sign that things ar elookign up on the health front, Justine was even able to eat most of hers!

At this point we sorted through the options for our afternoon and settled on a canal boat tour. We had heard the commentary on these things is uninformative & uninspired (which was very true) but we had done our “learn about the city” tour already today. We just wanted a chance to be on the water. It had turned into a gorgeous day, sunny & hot, and everywhere you looked there were boats of every type zipping or bobbing along the waterways. We were expecting to be packed like sardines onto the boat, but ours had tables and they let us keep ours to ourselves. We rode around in the sunshine, lounging on our bench seats we had all to ourselves while the light breeze ruffled our hair and the water lapped against the side of the boat. Another nice thing about the tour was that it took us to some places farther from the center that we had not yet visited. We glided along a canal lined with large mansions. These were not the worlds skinniest houses we had seen earlier! Then we crossed into the open water behind the Centraal Station and took a look at the sights out there. One of our favorite things were the several story car-park like structures made to house people’s bicycles.

Once back on land we preceded to wander aimlessly through the city. At one point we had no idea where we were. It was awesome. There were museums or sights we could have been going to, but Amsterdam is a place where the best experience is just being there. It’s all about strolling down the streets full of classic old houses lining the beautiful canals. It’s about stealing glances down the side streets full of coffeeshops and sex stores. It’s about sitting in the open square full of tourists & locals alike and soaking in the atmosphere. The entire city is like that “trendy street” anywhere else. It’s not just what’s on the street but the general vibe you get when you’re there. So we walked. And then we sat by a canal. And then we got an ice cream (it was only 50 cents, we couldn’t resist) and sat on the stairs of the National Monument just off Dam Square. It was a completely pointless, and yet extremely enjoyable way to spend the early evening.
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It was sitting on these steps we saw a tour guide from Sandeman’s New Europe stroll up to the monument with a “Tour Starts Here” sign. Of course we were curious…we love walking tours! We suspected it was one of the tours our guide had mentioned earlier, that we had been interested in but forgot to ask about. When we saw some members from our earlier tour group walk up, we joined them to find out more. The tour was as we thought: the Red Light District Uncovered tour. How could we resist! Hilariously, 5 other members of our earlier tour had shown up for this one so we had a great group of young people who we already kind of knew to hang out with. This time our guide was an approx 65 year old man named Angel who used to live on the beach in California and moved to Amsterdam because he had an offer to teach meditation classes…oh the stories he had to tell…but on to the tour…
That’s Angel with a statue outside the Old Church…the statue’s inscription talks about the people’s oath to respect the women of the sex industry.

Prostitution has always occurred in Amsterdam. The Red Light District began during the Golden Age of Amsterdam. At this time the streets were filled with sailors coming ashore after spending months on boats with only other men. Naturally they wanted a lady. The people of Amsterdam decided it was better to have these sailors find the ladies who wanted to be paid for sex, instead of finding their innocent daughters, sisters, wives and mothers. The District was a way to keep the ladies of Amsterdam pure.

These days, all of the girls are self employed. They are registered individually as independent businesses and have to pay taxes on their income. The red-lit windows are owned by four companies and the girls rent window space by the shift. The price of a window is around €100, but of course it varies depending on day, time, and location. The girls themselves come from a variety of backgrounds, although each must be over 18 and a citizen of the EU. Some are students, some are mothers, some are housewives and some are elderly women. The oldest lady in a window is 72 but the oldest prostitute in the city is 83. She works out of her home and has a 2 week waiting list! The going rate for sex in the city is €15 for 15 minutes, but that’s just your base rate. Anything else is extra…that can include anythign from kissing her or taking off her top to the kinkiest things you can imagine.

The Red Light District is one of the safest streets in Amsterdam. There are police stations at each end and regular patrols of the streets. The street has been accepted as a way of life in the city and the girls are protected. They have emergency buttons in their rooms connecting them to the other girls in the area and security companies maintained by the window rental companies.

There is one unspoken rule on the streets of Amsterdam, the girls want to stay anonymous. They do not want their picture in your trip scrapbook or posted on the Internet. If one of them catches you taking their picture it is highly likely a girl will chase you down in her stilettos and smash your camera. If you’re really lucky she may even throw some stale urine on you. Doesn’t that sound pleasant! Because of this the best we can offer you is a photo of one of the District’s streets:

As a side note, we have so many more stories from this tour…when we get home be sure to ask us about monkeys for money, small penis humiliation and dyslexic transvestite bingo…

We ended our tour at a bar for free shots…Kristin took Justine’s as well as her own…Jäger probably isn’t the best for someone recovering from a stomach virus! Our walking tour budies were all there so we bonded and exchanged trip stories. Angel also entertained us with a few tales of his interesting & unorthodox life. It was a really rad evening!

Random Observations:
– Dutch people are super nice, until they get on a bike…then all bets are off and they are possibly trying to kill you! Then they’re call cycle-paths.
– There are bikes everywhere here! We are talking with people riding them on every road, sidewalk & path in town….and also chained to every wall, fence, post, bench and any other immovable object in town!

Things we Learned Today:
– 20,000 bikes are pulled out of the canals each year.
– 1 person every week drives their car into a canal.

Tomorrow we will be out of the brothel scene and into a fairy tale…

Love, Luck & Latex (…you know what we’re referring to…),

My hair was even decent today…and then I threw up…

We knew today wouldn’t be our best right from the very start, when Justine woke up at 6am and vomited. Now isn’t that a pleasant way to start a blog post…well it’s an even less pleasant way to start a day. Kristin really wished she could just tell her to stay in bed and sleep all day, but that is not exactly conducive to our vagabond lifestyle. The fact is, we needed to be out of our Brussels hostel by 10:30am and in Amsterdam by the end of the day if we wanted a guaranteed place to sleep.

To make the trip seem more manageable we divided it up into smaller steps: (1) Get to the Metro (2) Get to the Train Station (3) Get settled onto the Train (4) Get to Amsterdam (5) Find our Trolley (6) Get to the Hostel
Things went rather smoothly, if you don’t count Justine throwing up when we were still only on Step 1. Yes, we had a few exciting minutes where Bean was throwing up in the metro station garbage, but she powered through and held it together the rest of the way. Our train ride was 3 hours so she got a good chance to nap in the middle of the traveling excitement.

Our Amsterdam hostel is a little ways out of the city center so we decided to utilize public transport. Rather than an expansive metro system, Amsterdam uses a network of above ground trams. It is really much more practical in a city full of canals. They might be a bit slower than a subway train but you get a good view of the city while you travel. Tram 25 was nice & close to the hostel. It’s in a really nice area with a big park across the street. The hostel itself is pretty nice. We’re in a 10 bed room so it might be a bit crazy in the morning, but the room isn’t too squishy so it should be ok. There’s a nice breakfast/common area/kitchen in the basement…a couple of armchairs and a lot of tables.

When we had checked in we immediately tucked Justine in for a nap…she was feeling the need to be horizontal. When she was all comfy Kristin set off to find a snack…she was starving! She asked the man at the reception desk if he knew somewhere nearby for a cheap snack. He told her to walk to the end of the block, turn right & walk 100m. She did and ended up in the middle of a giant street market!
It took over an hour to walk the whole thing, so it was a good time killer while Justine got some much needed rest. There were stands selling everything imaginable: produce, meat, cheese, waffles, clothes, shoes, fabric, spices, souvenirs, toys, nuts…etc, etc. Kristin munched on a small cup of grapes, some yummy homemade wafers & some dried apricots. It was a super cheap, super delicious lunch.

Kristin then returned home & checked on her ill cousin. Justine had just woken up and was feeling a bit better. We decided though that she could still sleep a little more. So Kristin went the basement and entertained herself on iPad…including talking to her parents on FaceTime 🙂 After another hours nap Justine was feeling up to seeing some of the city.

We took the tram to Central Station and then walked to Dam Square. This stretch and the area around it would be considered the center & main tourist area of Amsterdam. We walked into a couple of souvenir shops and grabbed a quick something to eat. The exciting part of this was that Justine ate a sandwich and it did not come back up! This is a picture of an old building in Dam Square:

Amsterdam is a hard city to describe. It’s gorgeous! The streets are full of old and interesting buildings. Some are beautifully classic, while some have a slight wonderful quirk to them. Then there are the canals. They are so picturesque that you want to take a photo of every single one. We tried to scope out the one from the picture at the Padget parent’s house…could it be any of these?
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But there is definitely more to Amsterdam than beautiful architecture and scenic canals…this place has a whole other side. We know you have all heard about this city and how it has no laws against pot & prostitution. And as you get closer and closer to the Red Light District this becomes increasingly evident. There is that slight sweet smell to the air that tells you someone (or several someones) are definitely smoking up behind that coffee shop’s closed door. There are the signs for discount sex shops mixed in between the signs for tourist shops & restaurants. And then, when you reach the right streets, there are the florescent red light lined windows featuring girls in almost nothing, tapping the window trying to get the attention of any man passing by. It’s so hard for us to wrap our heads around, even though it’s right in front of us. The idea that prostitution is legal is hard enough to get, but then there’s the fact that girls actually choose that as their career. We think we are pretty open minded, but maybe not that open…

All in all we really enjoyed our first foray out into the city, although it was brief. We got back to the hostel at about 8:30 so Justine could go to bed early. And early she went…she was fast asleep by 9 pm! We have thought about it and have decided it was probably just a 24 hour stomach bug. She was feeling a little better by bed time so hopefully she will be 100% again tomorrow!

Love, Luck & Ladies of the Night,