Monday, January 3, 2011

There's No Place Like Home (and Brussels) for the Holidays...(Pt. 1)

...No matter how far away you roam.

Alright, I know y'all have been jonesing for an update, but between all the transatlantic travel, catching up with friends and famille, and all kinds of jet lag, I've been a bit busy. But this update shall be nice and long (and may in fact come in multiple installations), to sate your voracious blog appetites.

So I left for the US early in the morning on December 15th. Man that trip will take it out of you. In total it took me 22 hours to get from Valenciennes to Chicago, and 27 to get from Indy back to Valenciennes. My trip home commenced at about 7am, when I left my house with my giant rollerbag (just inching under the 50lb airline weight limit for checked bags), overstuffed backpack, and filled-to-the-brim shoulder bag. I walked about 15 minutes to the bus stop at the train station, only to realize after boarding the bus that it stops at both ends of my block. Doh. So I rode the bus for about 25 minutes to the small town of Quievrechain, to begin my super-shady-sounding-but-actually-not, very cheap way of getting to the Brussels airport. You see, there is no easy way to get to the Brussels airport from Valenciennes, unless you drive, which in France I do not. There is an easier (but not easy) way, and there is a cheap way. Clearly I opted for the cheap way. The easier way involves taking a train from Valenciennes to Lille, then another train from Lille to Mons, Belgium, then a third and fourth train from Mons to Brussels and Brussels to the airport, but because the train from Lille to Mons is an international train, and because you are taking 4 trains in total, it will cost you. The cheap way involves taking a bus to Quievrechain, a border town, and then walking through town and crossing the border (the shady-sounding part, even though you wouldn't know you were even crossing the border if you weren't paying attention) into Quievrain, Belgium, and taking a train from Quievrain to Brussels, and another from Brussels to the airport. So to recap the journey thus far: 7am, 15 min walk to the bus stop, 25 min bus ride to Quievrechain, 15 min walk to the train station in Quievrain.Then I waited for about 45 mins for the hourly train to Brussels, already thoroughly exhausted from suitcase lugging, and thoroughly creeped out for reasons I am about to explain.

Quievrain used to have a big, beautiful, brick train station, like most other European towns and cities of reasonable size. However, due to reasons I was unable to ascertain (the economy, perhaps?), the old train station is bricked and boarded up, rusting and rotting and covered with graffiti. Next to it now is a shady-looking construction trailer that is serving as the new (and apparently permanent) ticket office. Since there is not much room in said trailer for waiting, and because I was feeling a compulsive need to smoke as many cigarettes as possible before my flight (I hate a transatlantic flight for innumerable reasons), I waited for my train outside on the platform, in what was once a glassed-in shelter but was now only partially glassed-in and partially busted out. So here I am, early morning, gray sky, light snow falling, staring at this creepy old train station, surrounded by broken glass and graffiti, not another soul in sight, save the light in the ticket trailer. And I'm thinking "Oh, this must be what WWII felt like." I really felt like I was in a bombed-out Polish ghetto or something. Then my wheezing, rusty, heavily graffitied train lurches up to the platform, and I am half expecting to see cattle cars rather than passenger cars. The grizzled old conductor sticks his head out the window and yells at me in French to get on at the back of the train. I do so, wondering if I will really end up in Brussels or if I am headed straight to a work camp. Fortunately I did end up in Brussels, but the whole experience was an exceptionally creepy time warp. 

I arrived at the Brussels airport ridiculously early, with several hours to kill before my 1pm flight (you can never allot too much "cushion" time when relying on public transport in Europe, trust me). So I ate an 8 euro cheese sandwich (ridiculous) and had a 3 euro bottle of water (also ridiculous), because of course I had not used my brain and eaten breakfast before leaving the house that morning. Then, to my delight, I found that Brussels is one of the few airports in the first world in which there are still smoking lounges, enabling me to further increase my odds of getting lung cancer before the ripe old age of 50 (I'm working on this quitting thing, I promise. But begrudge me my addiction on days like this, ok?). So I smoked a couple of cigarettes and befriended a lovely Belgian airport employee who was on his smoke break. Time passed, I boarded my flight to London, and arrived at Heathrow without incident.

Heathrow is by far the most gargantuan and confusing airport I have ever encountered in my short but well-traveled life. Ho. Ly. Cow. I deplaned, followed a maze of signs and ropes and pathways, took a bus to another terminal (and was, for a moment, massively freaking out that we were driving on the wrong side of the road, before I remembered I was in the UK), and went through security again, giggling a bit about the fact that "runny cheese" was considered a liquid on the list of those that needed to be in 3oz containers in a ziploc baggie. Having again forgotten that I was now in an English-speaking country, I spoke to the security guy in French, asking him if it was necessary to take off my shoes. Needless to say, with my American passport in hand and clearly American accent, he gave me a look that was, to put it nicely, quizzical. With another couple of hours to kill, I took it upon myself to explore a bit, and to find a good meal before my long-haul flight to Chicago. I settled on a sushi place, having not had good sushi since leaving the US, and because my inner 6 year old demanded it. Now I know most 6 year olds are not big fans of sushi, but they undoubtedly are big fans of food that moves past your table on cute little colored plates on a conveyor belt, allowing you to take what you like. See for yourself:

Freaking cool, right?
So I'm eating my sushi and decide to snap the above pic with my iPhone. After closing my camera app, I notice that the time on my phone is 4:20. My flight is at 4:30. I don't even know what gate I am supposed to go to, but I do know that it's a 20 minute walk (according to the signs) to the international terminal. Shitshitshitshitshit! Pardon my French. So I literally jump out of my seat, drop a 20 euro note on the table (pretty sure my meal was only about 8 euro... happy holidays, random waitress), and blaze into the terminal to check which gate I need to get to, heart racing, head pounding, eyes welling. Then I notice that, according to the clock on the departures board, it is in fact 3:20. Because there is a one hour time change between France and the UK. And since my phone is still in airplane mode, it would not have adjusted the time automatically. "Doh" moment number two. Feeling like an idiot, but happy to be safe, rather than sorry, I make my way to my gate anyway. The gates at Heathrow are "secured" meaning you have to play 20 questions with the security guard to get into the enclosed gate area, and once you're in, you're in. No peeing, no getting a snack, no nothing. A sickly little kid even had to puke in a trash can because they wouldn't let him out to go to the bathroom. And I thought TSA America's new security stuff was intense. They've got nothing on the UK.

So I'm sitting, waiting, snacking on some Madame Walker's shortbread (yum!), and I notice that the girl next to me is reading a French to English phrasebook, practically burning holes into it with her eyes, and getting this panic-stricken look on her face every time they make an announcement over the loudspeaker in English (which is the only language they announce in, of course). Knowing how I felt trying to navigate Paris CDG when I arrived in France, I look at her and ask "Vous etes francaise?" (Are you French?). She turns to me and nods as her whole face lights up, and she explains to me that she is traveling to the US to visit a friend, but doesn't speak any English and has no idea what's going on or even if she is at the right gate. So I look at her ticket and conclude that she is at the right gate, and I explain to her how they do boarding by groups, etc. She thanked me and told me I spoke French very well for having only been there a few months, which probably made my day as much as my help made hers. So that was my warm-fuzzy good traveler deed for the day.

Boarded the plane for Chi-Town, not thrilled to be in the middle section, but content to be on an aisle and to have an empty seat next to me. On the other side of the empty seat was a guy about my age, who had been traveling Europe since August and was now headed home because he had run out of money. He was a nice kid, and we shared the extra space of the empty seat quite amicably. I think at one point my sleeping head may have drooped over onto his shoulder, but he was polite about it and didn't say anything. Got to O'Hare, again without much trouble, save a bit of a delay on the tarmac back at Heathrow. Had an absolutely stunning view of Chicago by night as we flew over, too. Customs was a breeze, the officer even joked with me about bringing 5 bottles of wine home with me, refusing to believe my claim that they were Christmas gifts. From O'Hare I hopped on the blue line el, to Belmont station to await my best friend, Erica, who moved to Chicago for grad school and with whom I was planning to spend the night before making my way back to Indiana. I was standing at the station, waiting and filling my eyes with the scenery of Belmont street, and suddenly I hear shrieking behind me. I turn around, and before I can figure out what it is, I am engulfed in the whirlwind of enthusiasm that is my long lost best friend, and we do the whole screaming-hugging-jumping-up-and-down-I-haven't-seen-you-in-forever thing. And it was awesome :-). Then we got on the bus headed back in the direction of her place, but you know where I had to stop first: Chipotle.

And that, I think, concludes part one of our series on Sara's adventures to the US and back. Stay tuned for part two: Christmas with the Cranks... I mean Brooks/Whitmers.

1 comment:

  1. Hey, I'm delightful. It's the rest of those sorry excuses for relatives that are cranky!!!