A Weekend in Belgium- Brussels, Bruges, and Ghent!

We hitched a ride in a white van full of 5 strangers. A middle aged man sat in the drivers seat with his wife beside him and his mother-in-law in the middle row. There was a girl in her mid-twenties who approached the vehicle at the same time as us. When the three of us reached the worn exterior of the white 2002 Renault, the driver got out of the car, took our luggage and began to pack it in the overhead compartment on top of the van. Michelene (my friend/travel buddy/fellow American au pair) and I said some quick hello’s, climbed into the two back seats, looked at each other and gave the familiar “what are we doing with our lives right now?” smug kind of stare. We shrugged our shoulders and both made the familiar French “puhh” sound which happens when you purse your lips and slowly let out a thin sheet of air through the small crack between your lips. This subtle expression is one we have all subconsciously picked up on and involuntarily do at any moment when we are speechless, confused, or agitated about irreverent children or ignorant, stupid boys.

“C’est la voiture qui conduit à Brussels?” I stammered out nervously.

“Oui,” replied the mother-in-law in the middle row with a gentle and kind smile.

It was our first time using Blah Blah Car, a website where you can sign up for a car pool with others headed to the same place. It is becoming more and more popular in Europe and each driver has reviews and a profile so you can see what you are getting into.

I trusted the validity of the site and also trusted stories from my friends who had already used it. However, this didn’t change the fact that we were still getting into a stranger’s white van in the middle of a car park off the highway to Geneva…

I put on a brave face, decided that at least we had each other, and slept soundly knowing that if he tried to rob me, he wouldn’t get very far. So what did I have to loose?

We picked up another rider in Geneva and ten hours later ended up in Brussels, at a random bus stop with the timetable written in Finnish.

“C’est bon ici?” The driver said as he pulled over to let us out.

“Umm…yea..I mean there is a bus here, so I guess here is fine.”

Let’s be honest- he could have dropped us off in the center of the city and we would have had no idea where we were. I suppose that’s where the thrill of traveling lies, though. When you are young and full of reckless adventure, you’ll do anything to get somewhere- It doesn’t matter how crazy, confusing and complicated the circumstance.

In the end, after a conversation with a bus driver, a taxi, a metro ride, another bus, and 15 minutes spent walking around in circles, we made it to our Airbnb and met up with our friend Jillian just outside of Brussels.

What ensued over the next couple of days is what I can only describe as shenanigans, naked men running around bars, lots of beer, dance clubs, waffles, some pretty churches, monuments, selfies, laughter, Irish bar dancing, and french fries. Lots of French fries.

We spent the first day walking around Brussels city center and then took a train to Bruges where we went to a brewery, tasted some beer/cheese/ham soup, took a tour and tried a couple glasses of their specialty. We then went to small hole-in-the wall bar recommended by Mich’s friend and spent a couple hours tasting some dark 10% selections. I thought I hated dark beer, but after my Belgium escapades, I must say it is my new favorite. Bruges was the best place in Belgium, in my opinion- quaint and homey with a touch of European old-school character and charm.

Three beers deep in Bruges, we decided to try to head to Amsterdam the next day, because- well, why not. Unfortunately the trains were all booked up so we instead headed to Ghent, another beautiful city in Belgium and spent most of the day people watching and drinking. This bliss ensued until our second Blah Blah Car from Lille, France to Annecy canceled on us and we had to frantically search for another ride home.

We ended up booking a ride with a couple from Lille to Archamps, a town in France just south of Geneva. Unlike our first ride to Belgium, this ride was full of lovely conversation on travel, life, adventure and all things global and reflective. The whole thing felt like a modern day hitch-hiking, and the conversation was one I think we all needed to have for different reasons. I think for Mich and I, seven months deep in our French adventure, it was cathartic to speak on the process, on the year, where it has left us and where we see ourselves headed after this. The couple had spent years living in Canada and the US and understood our feelings on it all- on missing home, yet on also knowing what it will be like to say goodbye and to return, knowing that your heart will always be in two different places.

“In French we say, ‘Avoir le cul entre deux chaises.’ [rough translation: sitting between two chairs] There will always be a part of you that will miss the place you aren’t anymore,” he said.

Belgium is the seventh country I have seen since I stepped off the plane in Geneva last August. This fact is incredible to me, unexpected, and I have to pinch myself sometimes to make sure I’m not dreaming. I’ve been blessed with quite a lucky year.

As for now, I’m continuing to live up my last several months- two trips to Italy, and visits from my boyfriend, my mom, and an old friend from college. Life is good. ❤

Next stop on the travel train– Brindisi, Italy… 😉

Photos from Belgium:

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“If I had to give you one piece of advice, it would be this: don’t be intimidated by other people’s opinions. Only mediocrity is sure of itself, so take risks and do what you really want to do. Seek out people who aren’t afraid of making mistakes and who, therefore, do make mistakes. Because of that, their work often isn’t recognized, but they are precisely the kind of people who change the world and, after many mistakes, do something that will transform their own community completely.”

-Aleph, By: Paulo Coelho

Weekend in the South of France

The last time I visited the South of France I was 17-years-old. I was on an exchange program with a handful of other classmates and we stayed with families in Cannes for just under two weeks. I had never seen a more beautiful place. It was the first time I was away from my family for a significant amount of time, and also my first experience flying on a plane. I worked three days a week at Keantes Salon that year to pay for half of my trip. With my relentless pushing and the support of my parents, things came together and I was able to explore cities like Cannes, Grasse, Nice, and Saint-Tropez.

This time around- 7 months into my year as an au pair- I ended up there again. Myself, along with two other friends, drove from Annecy to Cassis, to Marseille, and then to Aix-en-Provence before heading back home.

As the second largest city in France, and the largest city on the Mediterranean Coast, the city of Marseille was our main destination for the weekend. We arrived there Saturday late-afternoon and ended up lost in a labyrinth of back streets that took us about 45 minutes to maneuver. I’ll be honest, as a big city, there are nice spots, and there are dirty ones you probably wouldn’t want to get lost in at night time. We stayed in an AirBnb in a fine part of town and were able to walk down to the main strip of bars by the port on Saturday night.

We didn’t stay long in Marseille. The next morning we jumped in the car and headed to Aix-en-Provence, which reminded me of Bath, England with a touch of French coastal flair. We walked around the city and enjoyed a relaxed day window shopping, drinking coffee, eating gelato, and getting quite an impressive magic show from a stranger…haha.

While we enjoyed the two larger cities from our trip, it was the smallest one called Cassis that truly caught our eye. Because we visited mid-March (before the heavy tourist season) it was still a sleepy sea town, with visitors scattered throughout the port. The boats swayed slightly as they sat patiently anchored off the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Even on an overcast day, this place was gorgeous, with quaintness and charm hanging from every corner. We started off at a restaurant along the port, where we drank wine and ate mussels and some perfect French bread. We walked along the beach, browsed some shops, and went exploring to see if we could make it up to the cliffs that we saw in the distance. We got in the car, started driving and stopped along the way at some unbelievable scenic outlook points.

The weekend was lovely, but also bittersweet because it was the last weekend we had with our fellow au pair and friend Jillian who just moved to London with her host family. I can’t imagine a better weekend to celebrate our time here in France together- we miss you Jill!!

Some photos from the trip:

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Cassis:

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