One of the best things about solo travel is that you’re alone, even in a crowd. You can decide when to eat, what to eat, where to go, what to see, how far to walk, when to rest. It is a sense of sheer freedom.
One of the worst things about solo travel is that you’re alone, even in a crowd. You might giggle or sigh or see the most incredible beauty and you look around and nobody else is there to share it with you. There might even be people sitting right next to you but they are caught up in their own conversation or cell phone or thoughts. And the more I solo travel, the more aware I am of this dichotomy. Not just in traveling, but in life. In this great big universe. We are all running parallel lives and sometimes we feel so giddy to be free and other times we feel so achingly, devastatingly alone. And sometimes we feel both at the same time. It doesn’t seem to matter how much we reach out to each other. Sometimes we still just overflow with both joy and loneliness and we can hardly stand it. And we are so happy to be alive.
I felt lonely but content as I watched the snowy grey prairie of Luxembourg through the train window on my way to Brussels, Belgium. The old churches and farms looked like they had been painted on a soft canvas. There were a handful of people on the train but they kept to themselves and I did, too.
I reached Brussels after a few hours and ventured out to explore the city. I was struck by the mix of modern and old architecture as well as the many chocolate shops.
Belgian chocolate is serious business! I stopped at the Musee du Cacao et du Chocolat where a Master Chocolatier demonstrated how he makes filled chocolates. Maybe it was his accent when he spoke English, or maybe it was his flare for drama, but the chocolates he made for us all to sample were works of art (and melted in my mouth). I could have stayed there all day. And not just because it was really cold outside.
The museum had a history of chocolate and chocolate making, tracing the origins to South America where there was an actual Goddess of Chocolate. As the story goes, ancient cultures would give chocolate drinks to the subjects of human sacrifice in order to soothe them just before they died. It was a wicked use of chocolate that I had never heard before, but yet I always hike and travel with chocolate in my pack. (Often whiskey, too, but that’s just because it goes so well with chocolate).
There were old statue fountains all over Brussels, I found it interesting that so many were carved into the sides of buildings. The most famous one of all, Manneken Pis or Little Boy Peeing, was surrounded by tourists and apparently he is dressed up in costumes for holidays. The statue dates back to the 1600s (the one present today is a replica built in 1965) and has a variety of stories behind it, none of which seem plausible. The stories range from a boy saving the city from fire by peeing on it to a gift from a father whose lost son was reunited with his family. The nearby gift shops sold all kinds of replicas and souvenirs of the statue. I found it a little odd, but then again I find most plastic souvenirs odd.
I walked past the Notre Dame in Brussels, and had to stop inside. I love to stop and peek into churches or synagogues or even mosques when it’s allowed, and I have been in over a dozen different Notre Dame Cathedrals all over the world. I love to just sit in the pews and take in all of the details of the architecture. Each cathedral has its own personality, and each one was built with a tremendous amount of love and respect. No matter how busy or noisy the city streets are outside, as soon as the heavy door closes it is quiet and meditative inside. I feel so small sitting among the carved stones and wood. The sacred spaces in our culture seem to be less appreciated than they used to these days, but sitting in the places that were hand built over many years, so long ago (in this case in the early 1400s) I feel the weight of the work that went into constructing such an enormous and magnificent place of worship. These places were built sometimes before almost anything else in the city, and sometimes even before the streets were paved with stones. That is how important these structures were to the people that built them.
There was an open air market next to my hotel near the train station. People were selling everything from silver bracelets to dishes and clothing. I couldn’t resist some tangerines to go with the chocolate I’d bought earlier. The man who ran the fruit stand where I bought the tangerines asked me if I was Canadian. I smiled and shook my head and said, “No, but close. I’m American.” He looked at me with surprise and said he’d never been to America. His parents had come to Belgium from India, and he was born and raised in Brussels. He showed me pictures of his two young daughters. I showed him pictures of my daughters. And with a smile and a nod I headed off to my hotel with my tangerines.
Across the street from my hotel, a woman was dressing mannequins in a department store window. They seemed a bit embarrassed to be standing there as people passed by looking in the window. Or maybe they were just embarrassed to be wearing such funny looking clothes.
The next morning, I decided to take an impromptu trip to Bruges, Belgium, a one hour train ride from Brussels. I left first thing in the morning, on a commuter train. It took me an hour to figure out the train schedule. They weren’t running according to the posted paper schedule or the online information from my phone. I ended up going down to ask the ticket agent (twice). When I reached the platform where he directed me, an announcement came on the loudspeaker and the entire crowd moved in a bit of zombie fashion following each other toward the stairs and down through the train station and back up another set of stairs to a different platform. I followed, too. The announcement was only in Flemish and French, neither of which I speak. I waited at the new platform, and sure enough–the train I wanted arrived a few minutes later. Sometimes, it pays to be a sheep and follow the crowd. Sometimes it also pays to ask for directions.
As the train headed out of downtown Brussels, I watched people commuting to work. I always feel a little guilty when I travel and watch people going about their daily lives. I feel a bit like watching people in a people zoo, as school buses trudge by and men in blue suits drive shiny polished sports cars, and office buildings frame people’s expressionless faces opposite computer screens. It feels like I’m sneaking into their lives a little, as though I am floating silently and imperceptibly through their realities of their kids’ soccer practice and sick relatives and broken relationships and worries about money and distractions of planning a party on Saturday night. As I travel, I drift without the obligations of real life. All of my own cares and worries are paused while I explore and wander in a new place–a place that is not new to those who live there and work there and love there and die there. They may never know that I have crossed their path, yet I have seen them and heard them. I have been a witness to laughter over lunch or anger as they clutch a cell phone to their ear. It makes me feel like a ghost in the movies, a little sad and distant but resistant to any of the day-to-day monotony of life.
There was a cold drizzle when I stepped off the train at Bruges, and my teeth were chattering. I ducked into the first hotel cafe that I found open and took a table by the blazing fire. I looked at the menu and there were four items listed, all in Flemish. I tried using my rudimentary German to decipher some of the words on the menu and then resorted to counting how many words were listed under each item. I settled on the middle one (the only thing I was confident of was “koffie,” and that was all I really needed). The waitress smiled politely at me when I pointed at the menu and then scooted closer to the fire. My breakfast ended up being coffee, a croissant, and a thin slice of white cheese. Perfect.
I made my way through the city gate and over several bridges to the center of town, where the famous belfry tower stands that was originally built in 1200. It was rebuilt a few times when fires destroyed it, and an addition was made in the 1700s. In its day, it housed cloth and city documents. It had several bells for signaling to the town the time of day, such as the beginning of the work day, lunch time, evening curfew (when the city gates were closed), funerals, and holidays (such as Christmas and Easter). Each event had a special bell ringing combination so the people could immediately tell what time it was based on the sounds of the bells ringing. It had 366 steps in a spiral wooden and stone staircase and I went all the way to the top!
From the center of town, I veered off a side street and happened upon the Museum of Fries (“Friet Museum”). I don’t eat a lot of fried food, but I had to stop in and taste the fries here. I had no idea that French Fries actually originated in Belgium! As the story goes, one year fisherman had a poor season and didn’t catch any fish. Instead of fried fish, they cut potatoes into sticks that were shaped like fish sticks, and fried them. The fries were introduced to American soldiers during the war. The Americans thought that the French speaking Belgian soldiers were from France, and the name “French Fries” was born.
The fries here were served with any number of condiments, including pickles and mayonnaise, which is how the locals seemed to be eating them. Half way through my fries, I read a small poster that said most of the fries in Belgium were fried with a mixture of beef tallow and horse fat. I hadn’t really thought about what kind of oil the potatoes were fried in, but I stopped eating them. Apparently that particular oil mixture makes the fries really crispy, but it made me a little queasy.
From the Friet Museum, I crossed over to the Choco-Story chocolate museum. One can never get enough chocolate while visiting Belgium. I think I read that in a foil chocolate wrapper once. This chocolate museum told a similar story of chocolate as the other one I visited, but also had more modern chocolate history. My favorite quote was accredited to a French aristocrat, Madame de Sigvigne, who said in 1672, “Take chocolate if you want bad company to seem good.” I agree completely!
I walked through town to the windmills that framed the outskirts of the old city center. They were a lot bigger than I expected.
As I walked back toward the town center, I stopped at the Jerusalem Church. I thought it was a mosque, based on the crescent moon on the side, and decided to stop and investigate. It turned out to be a private church and mausoleum of a prominent Belgian family, based on the Church of the Holy Selpulchre in Jerusalem (I visited that church in December, 2017). I commented to the attendant that I had recently visited the Church of the Holy Selpulchre in Jerusalem just a couple of months prior, and that this church reminded me of the blend of Judiasm, Christianity, and Islam. The attendant seemed a little offended and said that this church had been built in the 1400s, after a visit to Jerusalem by the Belgian family, and that it was only built based on the Christian church. I smiled and nodded, but recalled how the three religions merged and overlapped in Jerusalem and how it was impossible to tease out the differences. I certainly meant no offense, but having been there it certainly resembled many different aspects of the sacred sites there. It was a beautiful church to stumble on regardless.
If you have never navigated a train station or ordered from a menu in a language you don’t speak, you should do it. It takes courage but it also feels triumphant. We all feel vulnerable when we don’t know what we are doing, or feel like we aren’t good enough. Every single person. It happens when we start a new job, a new relationship, or move to a new city. As we get older, it is easier to resist or navigate around feeling uncomfortable. We become good enough with so many things that we forget what it feels like to be a beginner or even utterly confused. When you travel, you insert yourself into so many situations that are foreign to you and you feel awkward and uncomfortable pretty much non-stop. It is rather childlike, and you just keep going–that’s the essence of exploring any new place. It takes courage to forge ahead into the unknown, but that’s also where the reward lies. And one of the best rewards of traveling is that feeling of having explored, whether solo or with a group of other tourists. We are curious creatures, and we wonder about other places, other times, other stories. We can discover so much when we set off out the door, and if we are lucky enough to realize it, we will learn that each story we discover is uniquely our own.