This is the travel post for Double Dose Diana. Fasten your seat belts!
My first trip outside of Freiburg was a big leap for me: a solo trip to Brussels. This trip was intended to be almost entirely spur of the moment, with my flight and hostel being the only exceptions to this.
The journey started off with me finding the train from Freiburg to Basel on Friday, September 26th. When I showed up at the main station, the train to Basel was only five minutes away! This kind of perfect timing continues to define my travels so far, which is extremely lucky. A train ride, bus ride, and one hour flight later I landed in Brussels. It was raining and nighttime when I came in. On top of that I was unsure of where anything was in the city or how to access public transport in the city. Retrospectively, this is one of the only mistakes I made on the trip since I hailed a taxi rather than spending the time to figure out the trains. 50 Euro later, I made it to an absolutely awesome hostel named Meinenger Hostel. My wallet sobbed.
There were people my age everywhere – the atmosphere was electric immediately. My joy was increased even further upon spotting a (probably stray) cat running around the place. Another girl and I laughed over it and tried to get its attention. Crazily enough this girl and I turned out to be roommates, which I did not know at the time since I had not even checked in yet! At check-in there was an advertisement for a free tour the following morning, so I signed up. Soon after I fell asleep in my 6-bed all-female hostel room. Only to awoken by fireworks at midnight! There was a French community celebration going on the weekend I arrived. Two of my temporary roommates and I ran outside in socks/bare feet to watch the grand finale.
The next morning greeted me with a delicious all-you-can-eat breakfast that included cold cuts, yogurt, fresh fruits, freshly baked bread, hot chocolate, and coffee. Next, my “free” tour started around 10 in the hostel lobby. The tour was not free since Senna makes wages based on voluntary tips. By 2pm our Flemmish tour guide, Senna, took us past Grand Place, Mannekin Pis, the Opera House, Stock Building, Parliament Building, and Bruxelles Park. We learned about Belgium’s central position in the EU and also historically as a fighting ground to keep Germany from invading France. After saying goodbyes and thanks to Senna I walked around with Cathie and Angie, two girls from my tour group. They both work in Paris as nurses. We got lunch together and decided to stay in contact with each over Facebook.
Finally feeling comfortable alone in the city, I started exploring on my own. But again, I hit a bump in the road – this time by eating frites (fries) with curry ketchup, mayo, and onions. A pain developed more and more in my stomach, so I finally went back to the hostel to lay down. San, a new girl in the room that night, woke me up to explore the hostel. We met two guys, one named Rhoni and the other named Mohamed. We talked a ton about travel, jobs, education, and San and I watched them play pool. Hostels are great places to meet people from around the world and I cannot wait to go back to one after this experience.
Day 2 was a completely free day to explore museums. While walking towards Grand Place, I unexpectedly discovered a contemporary art museum. Then my breakfast dreams came true as I downed a Liège waffle with strawberries and chocolate on top. Pay attention now. This is important waffle information. Liège waffles have crunchy caramelized sugar in them. They tend to come in oval shapes, are more dense, and more sweet. Belgian waffles are rectangular and are more bread-like in taste. Liège waffles are the absolute winner in my opinion. That sweet crunch is to die for. Right this second, I really want another Liège waffle…
A woman with her young daughter approached me for help in getting them food. I do not hand out money to strangers and instead directly buy food. We all went to do an impromptu grocery store run as a result. This is not necessarily something I advise anyone to do. This is something I have background experience in doing at home in Baltimore, and I also had a good enough grasp on French, the language they spoke. For instance, Flemmish Dutch is also spoken in Belgium and it sounds so much like German! Unfortunately the similarities end in the sound; it made no sense to my ears. I would not have been comfortable enough helping if the person only spoke Dutch. Thankfully, this seemed like a situation where some people just needed food.
The rest of the day was taken up exploring 4 museums for 3 euro at Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique. The Magritte Museum was amazing as it displayed his works in chronological order. Basically you take a ride through his life via his paintings. My favorite period of his was his impressionist surrealism, but photography was not permitted in the exhibit. Many pointillist landscapes caught my ey throughout the day as well. Next I went to the lobby of the Comic Book Museum (comics are a big deal here). Without having to enter I saw the most famous characters, and decided to look in the bookstore rather than spend time in the museum. With my time in Brussels winding to a close I checked off another “must eat” – moules frites, or mussels with fries. Then I found the train to the airport, boarded my flight, and took a bus home to Freiburg. Remember that great timing I talked about? The last tram home from the train station left only 10 minutes after I arrived. Phew!!
To be honest I am unsure if I have ever even done a solo trip in the US. Friends, family, they were always there with me at one point or another. They also assisted in making my travel arrangements. Every decision where to go, when to go, how to get there, what to do – all of it was up to me. It was amazingly freeing.
On Thursday, October 2nd I started my second big trip outside of Freiburg first to Paris to meet my friend from University of Richmond, Masnoon. Three trains and a conversation in French later, I arrived at Gare de Lyon, only a short walk from the zoo. The first exhibit was for red pandas. So. Cute. I could not handle the cute. Next I walked by Notre Dame and took the metro towards the Eiffel Tower. Masnoon only lives a 15 minute or so walk from there and I figured I would meet him after class. Unfortunately I ended up waiting in a McDonalds for a long time because Masnoon switched plans. Thankfully a girl named Juliette let me borrow her computer to get in contact with him.
That night Masnoon prepared Pakistani food for us to eat and I enjoyed the company of the house cat, Jojo. I really miss my cats, Cookies and Cream, back home. Another “home” luxury I indulged in was watching the Baltimore Orioles baseball team play their first playoff game.. The Orioles scored the most home runs they ever had in a postseason game, and I was able to witness it all the way from Paris.
Day 2 started with an early train to Orléans. Masnoon and I explored the city, which includes a lot of statues of Jeanne d’arc/ Joan of Arc and a beautiful cathedral that reminded me of Notre Dame. We bought food for dinner at the open air market. Some things in that market were shockingly delicious and others freaked me out a bit… After dinner we attended a Shakespeare play in French, The Tempest. I barely understood any of it, but it was a fun experience to guess all the same. As we left the play, Masnoon checked the Orioles score – they won again!! Originally we planned to go out to see what nightlife Orléans had to offer, but we were really tired and decided to watch a Pakistani movie called “Khuda Kay liye” instead.
Unable to arrange for an official tour, Masnoon and I spontaneously figured out trains to Blois (Royal Castle) and then Chenonceau. We enjoyed the gardens and grounds of both castles. Chenonceau even had a donkey farm! I enjoyed a fancier dinner in Chenonceau before heading back to Orléans. Again decided to stay in to work and watched Scooby Doo.
We made our way back to Paris the next day and spent a few hours studying. For our final meal together we got galette… I got a Punjabi galette with tandoori chicken, which was such a fun mix of cultures! Masnoon and I rushed to get a picture with the Eiffel Tower (and no tourists) in the background. The rest of my day consisted of making trains with one minute to spare. In total, I was on 12 different trains and several different metros throughout the weekend. Exhausted, Better traveled and exhausted, I went to sleep and vowed not to travel the next weekend!
Lesson #1: Do not take a taxi from an airport. There is almost always cheap public transport right at the airport. Major airports all have English speaking staff to assist you – just ask around for any advice!
Lesson #2: Securing a female-only room is worth the extra few euros. Especially when you are a woman traveling solo. You never know who will be in and out of your room during your stay. One of my flatmates in Freiburg recounted a story of finding herself alone in a hostel room with only one guy who proceeded to make her feel very uncomfortable. Reception at that particular hostel was not 24/7 like the one at my hostel, so she was literally alone.
Lesson #3: Easyjet is serious about their one bag policy… sometimes. On my way to Brussels, I was fine with my backpack and stuffed purse. On the way back to Brussels they made me “fit” all of the things in my purse into my backpack. It took about five minutes and a lot of muscle, but I got it figured out. My backpack wouldn’t even zip up, but everything was in there. Next time, I will just take one larger bag where my purse will easily fit inside.
Lesson #4: Traveling with someone else means constant compromises. Where to eat, where to go, what to do. Never realized this until going solo one weekend then traveling in a pair the next weekend. The contrast in freedom was significant.
Lesson #5: Split weekends between international travel and exploring your new “hometown.” Almost anyone who travels abroad in Europe gets some wanderlust seeing as other countries are close by. Indulge yourself, but also save money and time by discovering the history, people, nature, and culture right at your front door. Plus you need to catch your breath.
Suggested supplies for super successful travel: healthy snacks for train travel, water, and a map.