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A List, Antwerp, and the Unexpected

January 14, 2012

I’ve been a little absent from the blogging word lately, as I’m sure you’ve noticed.  This dreary weather weather hasn’t done much for my motivation to do much of anything.  So to combat this mid-winter slump, I’m compiling a list.  A list of people to see, places to go, and things to do.

I just found out I’ll be staying in Holland a few extra months so I have a little less than a year left.  I’ve already done and seen quite a lot, but the list of experiences yet to be had seems never-ending.  It’s time to brave the wind and rain and get started!

I’ve posted “The List” over there on the right side of the page.  And my hope is to annoy you with the sheer mass of posts to come as I start to check things off.

To start, we have to go back in the past a bit. A few months ago, racked with a lingering cold that wouldn’t go away and feeling that I hadn’t gotten a proper night’s sleep in far too long, I decided to skip town.  I didn’t really care where I went, honestly.  As long as there was a bed and good coffee to be had, I would be happy.  After searching for cheap train tickets and affordable lodging I landed   on the small town of Mechelen, Belgium.  I hopped on a train with no expectations other than that of getting some rest and coming back sickness-free.  That’s the thing about expectations, they tend to be easily exceeded when you don’t have any to begin with.

I booked a room using Airbnb.com (if you haven’t discovered this little gem yet, get on it fellow wanderlusters!) and headed off to meet my host for the weekend and start discovering.  I spent the train ride making mental notes of the one liners the yoga instructor from New Yorker was making as we sat together during the trip.  She was dating a Dutch model and really loves that community because “their energy is so good, you know?  They exercise so much.”  After I confessed I was a bit nervous eating dinner alone on the trip, she suggested I read poetry while I do it; I pretended to know what poet she was talking about.  She, graciously, didn’t press the issue.

The train arrived at Mechelen and I said goodbye to my yoga instructing, model dating, poetry reading friend and set off to find the house I’d be staying at, following the scavenger hunt-like directions as best I could- “cross the bridge, five paces to the right, go down two flights of stairs, X marks the spot.”  By some sort of miracle I found the place without getting lost, I had a new sense of confidence in my solo traveling skills.  I could totally eat meals by myself for the next three days- poetry or not.

The thing is, I needn’t have worried about that all.  Grete, a tall and pretty girl with thankfully perfect English, greeted me at the door when I arrived.  I was awkward, she was gracious, and showed me around the house and to my room.  Despite my inherent awkwardness, we got along great from the get go.  She invited me to dinner with her and a friend, which turned into drinks at a local bar and long night of trading travel stories, thoughts on the US Republican nominees, and learning what life was and is like growing up on different continents.  I went to bed much later than my “9:30 at the latest” plan and slept through half of the next day.  Totally worth it.

Grete greeted me the next morning afternoon with Sinterklass chocolates and delicious Belgian cheeses and bread.  I was well fed and ready to head out to Antwerp, a 15 minute train ride from Mechelen.  I arrived at the station (the same one where this happened) and the architectual differences between the Dutch and the Belgians was immediately apparent.  Antwerp Station is grand and intricate.  Amsterdam Central is beautiful in it’s own right, but obviously favors function.

My day was mostly spent wandering.  I went to a few churches (no photos allowed, unfortunately), perused an outdoor market, and stumbled upon a beautiful garden I like to pretend is my own little secret.  I planned to gorge myself on chocolate and museums but by the time I really found my bearings, the museums had closed for the day.  That’s what you get for sleeping in until noon.  I did eat my fair share of chocolate though- a fair trade in my book.  The sun started to set and the temperture follwed suit.  I headed “home” to a warm shower, a cup of tea, and a Jane Austen film.  Yes, if I were to become a doctor, these would be the type of perscriptions I would write.

In the morning I was barely feeling the last traces of my cold.  I was rested and ready to check out the small village of Mechelen, until Grete reminded me it was Sunday and everything would be closed.  She was nice enough to invite me to a birthday brunch in Antwerp with a group of her friends.  We spent hours there, eating and drinking and sharing.  It’s funny that on the train ride from Amsterdam I was preparing myself for a weekend of solitude, of quiet dinners pretending to read poetry.  But instead I spent a good portion of the weekend getting to know strangers- learning from their stories and feeling like I had discovered something so much more than that secret garden.  And this is the lure of travel: The Unexpected.  This is the itch that keeps people wandering about the globe  in search of nothing more than experience.  Mine may  not have been novel-worthy, and maybe it’s not even blog-worthy.  But for me, that weekend serves as one of my fondest memories so far during this year in Europe.  It sort of woke me up, reminded me why I’m here, and showed me the kindness of strangers.  That’s something worth writing home about, I think.
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