24 Hours In: Brussels

Disclaimer: Language. Mostly because I’m into my second glass of wine and feeling passionately about this.

Hottest city I’ve ever been in, which is saying a lot coming from someone who’s lived in America’s armpit (Florida) for three years. The average temperature in Brussels in August is allegedly 22C / 72F. There’s so much bullshit in this claim I could fertilize Texas with it.

It wasn’t 22C. It was 36C (97F for the Americans). Intolerable heat. Not enough water in the city’s free water fountains to cool you off heat. Legs sticking to each other, hair matted to your face, sweat beads racing down the small of your back, kind of heat.

Are you feeling this yet? Here’s another layer of heat. The Airbnb we stayed at had “nature’s” aircon: open the windows, get the breeze, y’all be fine.

Except there wasn’t a breeze. And we weren’t fine. We were staying right in the middle of the pedestrian walkway so exploring on foot was easy. We found city hall and marveled at how old everything was, and got a postcard-perfect shot in front of the Godiva store. We did that for about 2 hours, and then found ourselves in the food district.

The food district is a place to go if you want to be aggressively guided into a restaurant. Don’t dare look at a menu because that’s your way of saying you want to eat there. I don’t remember where we wound up eating, but I do remember day drinking.

We got chatting with our servers whom were all from a country other than Belgium. I appreciated that about the city. We learned the drinking age in Belgium is 14, that it was uncharacteristically hot, and most people speak four languages which is absolutely mind-blowing. We day drank outside and people watched.

Day drinking has a way of leading into a 5 hour nap, which we took, because we were feeling a heat-induced buzz. When we woke up, it was dark, and the sheets and the bed were soaked in sweat. Hair was wet. Pillow cases were wet. The window in our room was like a prison window, a narrow horizontal opening about 6 feet up from our bed, unreachable without standing on tip-toes.

I opened it expecting healthy gusts of wind, and got nothing.

Twenty minutes into sizzling we decided it’d be cooler outside than it was in our abode. So we put new clothes on to instantly sweat in and went out night-drinking. Would you believe it, the temperature dropped to 30C/ 86F. What a fucking relief.

The rest of the night is a blur but it basically ends up at a place called ‘Delirium’ which isn’t just one bar but a  whole row of bars and each bar has its own alcoholic theme: vodka, tequila, huge ass beers, whiskey, and more.

Summary of Brussels: 2 days is enough for it, avoid August, and prepare for liver obliteration at Delirium.

Travel Diary: Random Selection and US Border Control

13 hours later with Kiev in our airline rear-view mirror…

we arrive at JFK, and begin the slow-mo shuffle down to passport control. For some reason, people in New York thought it was too cold outside (It was 45 degrees…) so the heat was on in the airport. Heat on. Five planes arrived at the same time and emptied hundreds of people into the same border control. One by one, the passport control booths empty of the control agents, until it’s just one person at each end of the border control.

When it’s finally our turn, Mark and I give each other a look and had decided earlier that we would be “randomly selected.” Mark hasn’t trimmed his beard in about 3 months – it’s a week away from having its own zip code and town hall.

The border agent is a portly, pale balding man in his 50s and we’re giving him the run down of the places we’ve been when the agent scans Mark’s passport. He turns to Mark and tells him that he’s been selected for interrogation.

We called it. I look at the agent and say, “OK, it will tell you the same thing for me, then.”

But it didn’t, Isn’t that interesting? Portly man stamps my passport. You’re good to go! Welcome home! he says.

Our passports have the exact same stamps, dates overseas, and “questionable” countries visited, yet I wasn’t selected for interrogation.

Portly man steps out of his border control booth and walks us to the interrogation room, where a dozen other people could not be more excited about their interrogations, too.

/There really isn’t anything quite like sitting in an aluminum tube for 13 hours and taking your first steps in America after 5 months abroad to an interrogation room./

I could tell you a bunch of other waiting games and things in that interrogation room, but the thing is I wasn’t allowed to speak to the agent. Only Mark was. And about 2 hours later we were free to move about our home. And wow, nothing could have prepared us for how we felt coming back to America.

Travel Diary: Thanksgiving in Kosovo

It is a big deal in America for families to get together for Thanksgiving. If people don’t have or don’t like their families, they do a “friendsgiving.” Since our hosts in Kosovo had never experienced this, we decided to cook a full Thanksgiving dinner in friendsgiving fashion and tell our holiday story. Typically the dinner is centered around a turkey, but neither Mark nor I like turkey so we decided to go with ham.

We searched the markets and stores in Prishtina for a ham, and found a lonely ham at the bottom of a cooler in a grocery store. We brought it back home, to our hostel, all proud until someone saw it and politely said “I don’t eat ham.” Unfortunately, we had completely forgotten that we were in Muslim-majority country, and many people don’t eat pork products.

Nonetheless, our hosts were very fun about it. They chalked it up to a cultural exchange and said there’s no better way to understand a people than to devour their food. I couldn’t agree more. So in good faith, Mark woke up early in the day and began dinner preparations.

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Mark made a rosemary ham with cinnamon. The spices available were considerably more limited than either of us had experienced until this point, so it was a very simple recipe, but we got lucky with rosemary and that is really what made this ham absolutely fantastic. (Mark’s made it three times since we’ve been home!)

We had originally planned for 7 people as that was about as much as we thought the ham could feed. But because the aroma of the cooking had filled the entire hostel, other people wanted to hang out and eat food with us instead of going out. And I can’t blame them, the food was irresistible.

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 I felt like Jesus feeding the 5,000.  Miraculously, we had food for everyone! Hand-mashed potatoes, vegetables, ham, and handmade cinnamon apples. Mark organized it all and it is definitely one of the more memorable Thanksgiving dinners I have had.

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Left to right: Ardi, Mark, me, Arben (owner), Asdren (owner) and his girlfriend, Yll, and Vernon

Everyone pretty much laughed at the story how our forefathers ate “peacefully” with the Native Americans, but the 80c 2L of beer in the center of the table really washed everything down swimmingly.

A big shout out to our friends at Hostel Han in Pristina for keeping us entertained for over a month! And if you ever need a home base in Kosovo, we recommend this hostel as the only place to stay in the city center. You will come as a traveler and leave as a friend.

Mark and Melody

Travel Diary: Getting from Skopje to Pristina

It’s 90 minutes by car, but up to three hours by bus. The Balkans’ definition of bus and our definition were clearly misaligned during this trip. When I think bus, I think of a temperature-controlled bus with WiFi, toilets, and comfortable seats.

This bus did not fit any of this criteria. It was a mini-bus that seats 16, with limited luggage storage, no WiFi, and definitely not any toilets (not that I would use them, anyway).

We shlepped our bags on board and made our way to the back rows, hoping no one would expect us to put our bags in the luggage hold. We found ourselves across the row from an American expat working for the World Bank (called Mark Deux), and a UK train employee named Mike. Too many M’s. Mark, Mike and Mark Deux set the world right talking about finance, startups and international affairs. I attempted to drift in and out of sleep but the roads in the Balkans are not known for their newness or smoothness so sleep became impossible.

A clipboard made its way around the bus where each person has to write down their name and passport/ ID card number. This, in theory, is supposed to make the border crossing much quicker. What actually happens at the border is a Macedonian border official collects the clipboard and takes it back to his little post. Then he comes back and has to collect each passenger’s passport/ ID card and return those to his post. After about ten minutes of hem-hawing, the passports are returned to us. Sometimes we get a stamp; sometimes we are disappointed. The odds are 50/50. Then the exact same process is repeated at the Kosovo border.

The border control is unremarkable, and the bus driver behaves normally by stopping at places that are most assuredly NOT typical bus stops to pick up random people. His homies, I’m guessing. These people pay when they get on, an indiscriminate amount, sometimes 1 euro and sometimes 3 euro. There’s definitely not a system.

We’re about an hour away from Pristina when we pull into a petrol station. I assume it’s to pick up fuel, but then Mark Deux investigates and the Batman driver and his Robin are taking a smoke break! We’re an hour away; honestly, you couldn’t wait? Mark and I run into the “convenience store” and pick up a crisps and chocolate breakfast. Someone runs in and asks us, in very broken English, if we’re with the bus. We say yes and run out to see everyone moving their luggage from our little bus to a large, cushy coach.

What is going on? We grab our bags and head to the coach. Turns out, our bus BROKE DOWN, and this coach has come to rescue us. Stellar. We are waiting in the stairwell of the coach to get onto it and I get frustrated. I snap at the person in front of me to move.

That’s when it becomes abundantly clear that the bus is full. There are no seats. So the 15 or so of us that were on our rinky dink bus are now standing in the aisle of the coach, hovering awkwardly over sitting passengers.  I move my way straight to the front and dig in to my breakfast: a Milke Oreo chocolate bar and tomato pesto crisps.

It’s probably only ten minutes later when people begin disembarking, but it being so awkward for me it felt like 20 hours. Someone moves and I gesture for the person behind me to take a seat, which she refuses. I don’t offer twice so I take the empty seat. One by one, people slowly begin filing out of the coach and the standing room passengers begin finding seats.

The coach enters Pristina and nearly the entire bus empties into the middle of a random intersection. That’s when it occurs to us that there’s a decent chance this coach’s final destination is not Pristina Bus Station. It could be going to Serbia. The coach driver could have had Rakija with his breakfast and forgotten his destination. When we turn away from Pristina city center and toward Mitrovice, my anxiety swells.

Just when I think we’re headed into a different country, the coach veers sharply to the left and off, on the side of the road, is the underwhelming Pristina Bus Station.

Whew. Mark Deux and Train Mike file off of the coach. There’s a running joke that whenever we board the bus to somewhere, it is always raining in our final destination. Pristina is no different. It was raining. A cold, piercing, hair-frizzing rain.

We part ways with Mark Deux and UK Mike, drag our sopping selves and our damp packs into a completely unmarked cab and arrive back to the hostel twenty minutes later for less than $4.

 

Travel Diary: Getting to Barcelona

After a month’s foray in the French Midi-Pyrenees region, we decided to take a coach down to Barcelona. We arrived at the train/ bus station in Toulouse, France way before our 5:30 bus was scheduled to depart. We killed time doing what normal Americans do: eating.

The sun began sinking around 5 and the temperature sank with it. When we left for Europe in July, we had mild autumn temperatures in mind; single degree Celsius was not on the agenda, but that’s what we were experiencing in Toulouse. Minutes passed; 5:30 came and went. I was cold. We had no idea where our bus was. About a dozen people were waiting at the same bus platform, so we knew our location was right.

Nearing 6pm, a portly French man in a neon green vest told no one in particular that there’d been a terrorist threat on the train station down the road from where we were; the police closed the street so the coach couldn’t enter the bus station. Then he left. At this point, I began to get exceptionally impatient. What’s the point of standing somewhere if the coach cannot come and get us?

Another half of an hour passes and this same portly man comes rushing back to us and tells us to follow him. This sounds like the beginning to a horror movie, blindly following someone like this. We leapfrog through the congestion and find the bus literally parked in the middle of a road, letting its British passengers off, a bagman simultaneously unloading the weary travelers’ luggage and loading us impatient travelers’ luggage onto the coach. We file in with great haste and take off.

The British driver announced to us that since the main road had been closed, he has to travel north out of Toulouse (exactly opposite of the direction we should be headed) and circle back around south. Fingers crossed that the traffic will abate by that time. Before we even left the traffic circle, the sun was gone and we were covered in darkness.

Despite multiple coach experiences where there was a complete absence of WiFi or power outlets, we remain foolishly optimistic that coach = WiFi. Color me surprised, this was not the case. We spent two hours on and off connecting to the network only for silly Mac to say the internet was unavailable and all kinds of “you shall not pass” excuses. Final result? Sporadic internet for a five hour journey.

So I read on my Kindle and slept.

Somewhere between Toulouse and the border (which doesn’t exist because, Schengen), it began to rain. When we finally arrived to Barcelona five hours later, our saucy British driver says over the speaker: “Here we are in Barcelona. Enjoy the rain!” Which had actually turned monsoon causing us to become thoroughly soaked the minute we left the coach. We grabbed our bags and ran inside the bus station. Our hostel was booked yet we had no idea how to get there. Taxis waited with bated breath to take us anywhere at extortionate prices. Taxis aren’t really our thing, so we decided to walk.

In the cold.
In the rain.
To the hostel.

Thankfully, the rain let up a bit so we were walking in a kind of heavy drizzle. We reached the hostel, like a pair of wet dogs, like a shivering Mary and Joseph, looking for our cozy beds. The receptionist was a bit surprised to see us so drenched, but we promptly dried off and checked in. We splurged for the private room, which to me is perfect because it’s an excuse to unpack everything and throw things everywhere. Claiming territory.

About 1am, we finally let ourselves succumb to the throes of the sheets and fell into a deep, dry slumber.

Travel Diary: Copenhagen’s Disappointing Walking Tour

View from the SkyIt all started when we took a train to Copenhagen city center to do one thing: a free walking tour at 3pm.
We found the main square and waited for 20 minutes. It’s an oddly warm day in Denmark, so we’re sitting and sweating. I’m admiring the 2-story Burger King on the corner, and Mark is observing this guy as part of some kind of stag party doing really socially awkward things to embarrass him.

We’re looking for a guide that, per reviews, is wearing a green shirt with a green umbrella. 3pm comes and goes with no mass tour assembling and no green t-shirt tour guide. According to Google Maps, the pickup point for the walking tour was at the entrance of a hotel. We go to the hotel and ask the lovely gent at the desk where the meet point actually is. He tells us to go out of the hotel and turn left, then we would see the meeting point behind the hotel.

We follow his instructions into a narrow pedestrian way that’s filled with the sweet aroma of hookah. Our eyes scan both sides of this walkway, and we don’t see any signage pointing to a walking tour. I’m well past frustrated and teetering on embroiled.

Mark checks the reservation and it says to meet at the steps of town hall. We go to town hall and wait for over 15 minutes. The original tour has long departed. We decide to wait for the next one, at 4. We go get overpriced froyo, sit on town hall steps and wait.

4pm comes and goes. No gathering of tourists. No guy in a green shirt. I go so far as to approach strangers in green shirts and ask them if they’re tour guides. We wander around a narrow street and into a shop with blue and white tourist info sign and ask about the tour. She lets us know that there wasn’t a walking tour today. Color me surprised.

We decide to take the high road and instead of chew this woman’s ear off, to go to Malmö, Sweden instead, since we’re in the business of collecting countries and all.

She shows us the schedule of the coach times to Malmö and transit times. It’s an hour to Sweden and an hour back to Denmark. While we can get to Sweden before day turns to night, the last coach back from Malmö departs 2 hours later, at 6pm. That didn’t work because we had an early am flight from Denmark the next day.

 

Disappointed by the lie that was the free walking tour and the unusable coach to Sweden, we schlepped back to the AC Bella Sky and enjoyed two Scandinavian priced (read: unreasonably expensive) appetizers.

Summary: If you want the walking tour, find the tourist office first and ask if they’re even doing a tour. And if you want to do a day trip to Sweden, leave Copenhagen before 9am. It’s $10 each way.

August 29, 2015

Travel Diary: Prettiest Airplane Ride from Kosovo to Slovenia

We don’t mean the airplane and we’re definitely not talking about the flight crew. What was most breathtaking is everything we saw outside of that tiny prison window as we flew from Pristina, Kosovo to Ljubljana, Slovenia.

We’re flying on this tiny Adria plane, which might as well have been a prop plane considering the size of it – two seats on each side, and all of the luggage had to go into the hold. No charge, naturally, and no issues with the plane, boarding or passport control.

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It’s an hour flight, and that’s reassuring despite the winter turbulence. We closed the window blinds after takeoff because the sun was coming in full force into our tired faces. What I saw below when I finally opened the window covering took me totally by surprise. Delicious snow-capped scenery, exactly like the candies. And I became like a kid in a candy store. Little did I know the Slovenian mountains rival the Alps in beauty, majesty and pure wow factor.

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Adore that black and white contrast. Wow. The snow-caps were just too much beauty, and I felt tears in my eyes from sheer joy. Combined with the 3:30pm sunset, the colors of the sky and the rugged mountain peaks were a fantastic treat that only winter affords.

I wanted to turn around to the rest of the plane and say, Look out your window!  You don’t know what you’re missing!

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We got about 10 minutes of this before we finally made our descent, and a decision to return to Slovenia before we ever touched down in Ljubljana.

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November 30, 2015