January 28th, 2015
I squeeze myself into an impossibly tiny seat on my Ryanair flight as we take off for Brussels. I’ve been saving my pennies away to make sure I have enough to enjoy Paris, by far one of the most expensive cities on this adventure, so the cheapest option has been to fly from Italy to Brussels and then take a 4 hour bus ride tomorrow into Paris for a mere 20€. While Brussels is essentially a bit of a layover stop, I’m excited to get to see Laura who will be my overnight host while I’m there. Laura was my very first Couchsurfer I hosted while I was living in Baltimore and she and I had so much fun exploring the city together. She’s also the only person I know who speaks five languages fluently. I drift off for a quick nap once we hit the air and wake up when the wheels touch the tarmac at Zaventem.
Laura picks me up at the curb with a bright smile. She’s young, a few years younger than myself, with gorgeous brown hair and a sharp fashion sense. I hop in her car and we whisk away from the airport. It’s past 10pm and the city is dark. We curve down highways and then into the suburbs where she lives with her parents. We pull up to a lovely little house and quietly enter, the rest of the family already fast asleep. She gives me a glass of water and shows me the layout of the house, where I’ll be sleeping and the most beautiful sight of all; a huge, very new, very modern shower. If there was one thing Italy lacked, it was updated plumbing. After the tour we stand in the kitchen and chat a bit, catching up on what has been going on in our lives in the last few years since we’ve seen each other. She gushes about her lovely boyfriend and all he’s working to accomplish. She talks about her goals in school and how she’s hoping to eventually work for the United Nations like her father does. After a bit, we both head to bed.
I head upstairs but bed is the last thing on my mind. I head straight into the beautiful, roomy, clean bathroom. It has a light, clean smell lingering in the air. I let my dirty, well-worn clothes fall away from me and turn the hot water knob. Steam rises and clouds the room as it wraps around my bare skin like the warmest, lightest blanket I’ve ever felt. The goosebumps ripple through my skin in waves as I adjust the temperature to perfection. The smooth floor of the shower and the fact that I can reach in every direction without touching a thing but the divine, warm, damp air is euphoric. I step under the waterfall and let the water wash away the dust and the sweat and the musk of travel. Time seems to stand still until my fingers and toes begin to prune. I wrap myself in my travel towel and dress in my pajamas before melting instantly into sleep once my head hits the pillow.
January 29th, 2015
The next morning I’m up around 10. I dress quickly, re-pack my bag, and meet Laura downstairs. She drives me into the city to do some exploring before my evening bus to Paris.
We park in a parking garage and emerge into the city. Our first stop is the United Nations. Stoic, important, immaculately clean. The campus spans its own corner of Brussels. Laura proudly talks about the work she hopes to accomplish their one day.
From there, we head into the city center. And here I will tell you, there is one feature that stands out about this city above all else. This has to be the only city in the world in which the air literally smells like cake. The scent is the result of the divine intersection of both its many chocolate shops and its many wafel stands, the sticky sweet confections emanating from every corner, mingling and mixing in the air with the perfect blend of chocolate and vanilla. And of course, a wafel stand is one of our first stops. I get mine plain, and I watch as the shopkeeper freshly presses the dough in the iron, the wafel quickly taking shape as a golden sugar crust forms on the outside. It’s piping hot in its little paper boat and the first bite is light, airy, sugary heaven.
Next stop is a tiny little chocolate museum and chocolate shop. Tucked away inside one of the historic row homes, we wind through the tiny front shop and towards the back where a young man is making truffles for a demonstration. We’re joined by a small group and he immediately asks us all which language we prefer: French or English. Laura quickly interjects and asks for English for myself and the others in the group nod that English is fine, though their accents betray that it’s not their first language like myself. Another stab to the heart that I desperately need to learn at least one more language. The man then proceeds to talk and work his way through making a traditional Belgian chocolate truffle, his hands working the melted chocolate effortlessly into the moulds. At the end, we’re all given a bit of chocolate to taste and it is of course divine.
We wander around the narrow streets, Laura playing a fantastic tour guide as we stop at iconic sites such as the bizarre landmarks of the peeing boy and peeing girl fountains. She takes me through the grand, glass ceiling corridors that make up the Galeries Royales, the Italian-style pedestrian mall stuffed with high-end boutiques and restaurants. We stand in the town square, next to the gorgeous, gothic city hall.
Lunch is a stop for another Belgian classic, Belgian fries in a newspaper cone. They’re perfectly golden, with the optimal crisp crust on the outside and pillowy potato inside. A side of mayo for dipping sets them over the decadent edge with its mild, creamy taste. We chat as we munch away, and I tell Laura how jealous I am of her language fluency. She laughs and tells me how entertaining family discussions in her multi-lingual family can be. They frequently switch languages mid-conversation or even mid-sentence if another language can better describe the point they’re making. I mull this over thoroughly. The idea that our language alone can fall short of being able to capture the thoughts in our mind, how adding so many more words to our vocabulary through other languages can unlock so much more potential to illuminate our thoughts.
Soon it comes time for me to head off to Paris. Laura drives me to the bus station and we say goodbye with a hug. I plunk myself down on a bench at the outdoor stop and wait.
The time for the bus to arrive has come and gone. But I’m used to things not going exactly to plan at this point, and there’s no plan B. So I sit tight and hope the bus shows up soon. Two young guys who’ve been standing a bit away from me since about 10 min before the bus was supposed to be there walk over. The one guy says in halting English “Are you waiting for the bus to Paris?” I nod, and somewhere in the language center of my brain, likely from having been quite bombarded by so many new tones and words over the course of the trip, slips out a “Si!” in place of “Yes!”. The guy looks slightly embarrassed but nods politely and heads back over to his friend, speaking to him in a totally different language.
After what seems like an eternity, the bus finally arrives. I give my bag to the baggage man, hand off a Euro for it, and plunk myself down in a window seat, ready to drift off to sleep until we arrive in the City of Lights. Except, here comes the one young guy who was waiting for the bus with his friend and parks himself right next to me with a sheepish grin. Oh God, so much for sleep. I hadn’t put my headphones in yet and he’s ready to chat. He immediately starts speaking in halting Spanish, growing increasingly confused as I stare at him uncomprehendingly. I shake my head “Lo siento, no hablo espanol” He looks at me, embarrassed and apologizes in painstakingly slow English “I’m so sorry, I thought you were Spanish”. I wave it off and say it’s ok. He still stares at me. “My English isn’t very good” he says. I politely smile and say that’s fine. “Parlez vous Francais?” He tries. “Un peu” I shortly respond. He then launches into French and my extremely limited vocabulary is lost after a few sentences. At that point, he searches, trying to figure out how much English he can use to keep the conversation going. I admire his tenacity but this is now border lining on seriously uncomfortable. I apologize in slow English that my other languages are very poor and I pull out my Kindle, hoping the book will give him the hint. He sees it and tries to ask what I’m reading, getting visibly frustrated that he can’t find the words. I show him the title of the book on the screen and then flip back to my page, avoiding his eyes. He finally gets the hint and settles in, staring at his phone. We whiz down the highway, the lights of cars and buildings blurring past us in the night on our way to my final stop: Paris.