Bon Voyage!: Brussels, Amsterdam, Cologne, oh my!
Last weekend marked the passing of my first month living in France. After a month full of culture shock and resuming the drudge of student life, I was given a full week off for winter break. Instead of driving around my steadily deteriorating hometown or sitting in a vegetative state in front of my parent’s TV like I would normally do during a break, I booked train tickets to Brussels, Amsterdam and Cologne.
So to push past the obligatory statements associated with travel — was it all an exciting whirlwind? Check. Did I eat delicious food indicative of the culture? Yum, I mean yes. Did I see famous monuments and museums that deepened my personal perspective on humanity? Indubitably.
But those first hours in a new city are as terrifying as they are exhilarating, especially in places like Amsterdam and Cologne where I did not speak the language.
The first problem came when we landed in Brussels, Belgium at 11 p.m. and had to figure out how to get to our hotel. Disoriented and waddling around under the weight of our luggage, my friend Mandie and I walked over to a cab driver to ask how to get to Brussels from the airport.
Despite the fact we spoke French, he did not and proceeded to speak in an Eastern European language while making large gestures.
Before we could make any sense of what was happening he flung open the trunk, flung in our luggage and we flung ourselves into the backseat. At this moment my boyfriend’s joke “don’t get taken” ran through my mind.
After pulling away from the station he asked us where we were going and we gave him the address, praying it was not far. “Oh, 64 kilometer,” he said gruffly, “150 euro.” At which point Mandie and I said in unison “retournez à l’aéroport, s’il vous plaît.” He got angry and stomped on the gas. Soon we were hurtling back towards the airport where we, along with our bags, were dumped on the curb. Luckily we found a bus with a nice driver who could take us to Brussels for only seven euro.
That feeling of terror followed by giddiness continued throughout the week. I never felt more vulnerable at the will of the world than when we would arrive at a new city with only a poorly made cartoon tourists’ map and some scribbled addresses.
But there was always a way to get out of the bad situation. There was always a friendly stranger, a well-timed bus or, in the worst of times, a well-stocked ATM.
Then over the course of the day, with lots of exploration, the anxiety of being somewhere new was ironed away by the comfort of familiarity. That first gleeful, “Oh I remember that waffle stand, I know where we are!” was the start of really appreciating the city.
By the end of our third day in Amsterdam I was able to leave the map in the hotel and walk around like a local, now that is a good feeling.
Toward the end of our trip we saw The Lumineers play in Cologne, Germany.
While standing in line we met another American named Christian. He was from Indiana and studying Biology in Vienna. We talked for a couple hours then enjoyed the concert together and even made preliminary travel plans for the future.
Meeting him and standing in the front row at the concert put the struggle of the whole week in perspective.
Despite the aggravation and scariness of travel, I had to go through all that to find a part of life that otherwise never would have existed. Missing trains or malfunctioning bankcards is a fine price to pay for life experience and making memories.
And now that I am wrapped in the security of my bedroom in France, all those moments that made me curse and cry are unbelievably hilarious stories I will hold close to my heart.