I think the French education system is really onto something. Instead of one week of spring break sometime in March as the only respite from a hectic semester, in France we have 2 weeks at the end of Feb/beginning of March, and another two weeks in late April. Of course they don't finish the school year until late June, but I'd trade a month of summer for 2 two-week vacations in the second semester.
Needless to say, I have thoroughly enjoyed my time off. It's not that I was so crazy busy or stressed out before, but it seems like the less I have to do on a daily basis, the harder it is to stay on top of the few responsibilities that I do have. So having two weeks sans responsibility was nice.
I didn't get up to much at the beginning or end of break, just a lot of sleeping, reading, housecleaning, etc. But last weekend two of my nearest and dearest from the US came to visit me, which was fabulous. They arrived on Thursday and I showed them around Valenciennes and introduced them to my few friends who were still in town. Then Friday morning we set out in our rental car for Amsterdam. Lots of fun and hilarity ensued there, including the crazy adventure of trying to find our hotel and trying to drive in the city, and of course all of the other amusements that go along with being in Amsterdam :-).
We stayed in Amsterdam Friday and Saturday night, and then headed to Brussels on Sunday afternoon, as the girls were going to fly out of there on Monday morning. Ever before, I have always enjoyed Brussels, but this time she was less than kind to us. It all started when we got to the hotel. We had some difficulty finding it in the first place, because the streets in Brussels are so small and close together that it was confusing our GPS. But we finally found it, pulled up in front, unloaded our bags, and asked the desk clerk where to park. He told us we could park on the street or in the garage at the end of the block. That seemed straightforward enough, so it was decided that I would check in, since I had made the reservation, and the girls would park the car somewhere nearby. So I get us checked in, and I take a seat in the lobby to wait for the girls. Twenty or so minutes pass, and they're not back. So I decide to be nice and haul everyone's suitcases up to the room (4th floor, no elevator, narrow, twisting staircase, btw), so that we can be ready to go explore when they get back. This takes me another 20 or so minutes, and still no sign of the girls. At some point I also realize that I have the GPS, which means they don't have it, and that worries me. Not knowing what else to do and having no way to get in touch with them, I decided to turn on the TV and just wait. Thoroughly exhausted, I end up falling asleep. When I wake up, more than 3 hours have passed, it's pitch dark outside, and the girls are still not back. Not quite ready to panic, I decide to go downstairs and ask the guy at the desk what he thinks I should do, but as it turns out he only speaks enough English to check people in and out, and he doesn't speak any French at all. Effffffff. So I go back upstairs and decide that I will smoke a cigarette for courage and then go to the Best Western next door to see if I can call the police, because at this point I don't know what else to do, and I am starting to freak out a little bit. I finish my cigarette, grab my coat, lock the door, and start down the stairs. As I turn the corner, I see Megan coming up the stairs. Inexplicably, all we can do is laugh, both of us cracking up until tears are streaming down our faces. All she can tell me is that they were lost and that Sarah is waiting in the car. Wait, what? Yes, after nearly 4 hours, they still hadn't parked the car. Well actually, they HAD parked the car, on another street near the hotel, but then they couldn't find their way from the car back to the hotel. The poor things spent more than 3 hours walking around in a 5 block radius of the hotel. Lots of people in Brussels speak English, but apprently not in this part of town, because they had asked several people for help with no luck, so finally they walked back to the car, somehow drove back to the hotel, and, after all that, we found a spot directly across the street. What an ordeal.
After all that we treated ourselves to a nice meal on the Grand Place. We intended to follow up with some good Belgian brews at the Delirium Cafe, a famous bar and brewery nearby, but our attempts to make the best of the night were foiled once again by a drunk dude who wouldn't take no for an answer. He approached Megan outside the Delirium, and began speaking to her in French. Since Megan doesn't speak French, I translated. We were kind, but (I feel like) we made it clear that we were going inside and preferred to do so without his company. Unfortunately this sentiment was lost on him, and he followed us in, and began to get a little handsy with Megan. So we decided to leave, and I told him that we had an early flight and needed to get back to our hotel. Of course he wanted to come with. After I emphatically told him no, he suggested we come back to his place. Again, another emphatic no, followed by "We are going to leave now. We have to leave alone." (Remember, my French is functional but still pretty limited). But he follows us out and is walking down the street with us, trying to hold Megan's hand or put his arm around her. At this point, most of the bars and restaurants are closing, and the streets are emptying pretty quickly. I started looking for any big, burly-looking man I could find on the street, to see if I could communicate to him in English that we didn't want this guy around, and maybe he could tell the guy in French to get lost, because obviously I was not communicating that effectively. No takers. Not a single one of the probably 4 men I asked would help us. We are back in the center of town at this point, and I see the Marriott up ahead, and I figure they will have security or will at least let us in to call the police. I ring the buzzer, and tell the man at the desk what's going on. He tells me he has no security and can't let us in because then the drunk guy will follow us in. Go across the street and try McDonald's, he says. McDonald's is closed, I tell him. Can you please help us? No, he can't, he says. Seriously? Meanwhile, drunk guy is still hanging around, making indecent propositions to all three of us. Since we could speak to each other in English without him understanding, we decide our next step should be to go back to the Grand Place and make as big a scene as possible, in front of as many people as possible, and hope someone will help us out. I should point out at this point that although the drunk dude's advances were unwanted and unwelcome, and although we were starting to get a little panicky, he was pretty scrawny and I have no doubt that the three of us could have and would have kicked his ass if it had come down to it. Fortunately we didn't have to worry about it, because, almost like magic, a cab pulled up right next to us (we had been looking for one all night). We nearly knocked over the woman who was getting out, but managed to ditch the drunk creeper and get back to our hotel safely. Sheesh. What a night, right?
After all that madness, I think we were all ready to bid Brussels adieu. I was sad to see the girls go, but all in all we had a lot of fun, and it was SO good to see them. Now I'm just counting down the days until my family arrives at the end of the month!