It’s 2p.m., do YOU know where you’re sleeping tonight?

Working titles: Paris? I Prefer Trains; Two Hours in Luxembourg; Step Right Up and See How Flexible She Is; I Power Walked a Country… and So Can You; Livin’ La Vida Luxembourg; The Longest Story About a Day of Not Much; I Just Paparazzi’d A Nursing Home and Now I Feel Like an Asshole.

The plan for October 22, 2011:
1) Wake up, stretch, smile at life.
2) Catch the two hour train to Paris because I can!
3) Store backpack at train station.
4) Buy coffee at a cafe with a view of the Eiffel Tower! I’ve been waiting for that.
5) Write poem. Write home. Roam.
6) Return to Eiffel Tower, watch sunset. Smile at life.
7) Beat the system, not pay weekend hostel costs… Take a night train to anywhere! Probably Munich!

It was going to be a great day. I felt so confident about this, I slept through the 8:24 train to take the 9:24 instead. At 9:00, I packed my bag and went to Brussels Central Station.

“Yes, you need a reservation. That will be 27 euro.”

But, but… I don’t, but… The point of Paris and night train was to avoid… Fantasies are crumbling. I’ve paid $30 for taxis from the Syracuse airport to a Syracuse apartment multiple times. 27 euros to Paris? I can’t.

“You can take a train to Lille first and it will only cost 8 euro.”

I’ve got nothing but time! Sure!

“The next train from Lille to Paris available leaves at 7:30p.m. You will arrive in Paris by 9.”

I don’t have that kind of time.

“Would you like to reserve?”

No, no… thanks… I have to go look at my map of the continent. I’ll be right back.

(five minutes later)

Do I need a reservation for the 9:37 to Luxembourg? No?

I’m going to Luxembourg!

What I will do when I get to Luxembourg (country number 13 of the trip!) I don’t know. I’ve heard it is pleasant. I also already know there is only one hostel there, which sits at the bottom of an insanely steep hill, and I don’t want to spend an entire day and night there just to sacrifice another day to travel by train tomorrow… But hey, those things can be figured out when I get to Luxembourg, right? Worst case, Luxembourg will be a good stop for lunch, right?

Thoughts of this train ride: Adele has a song called “Love Song.” It has the happiest darn lyrics, and it is the saddest sounding song. If I could write and sing a love song, it’d have trumpets. I’d be multitasking – I’d be singing while grinning.

Bet this makes you grin.

Highlight of this train ride: I saw a cow running!

When I got to the Luxembourg train station, I asked about a night train to Munich. They run everyday! Except not on Saturdays. I asked the very serious question, “So… are there any other good night trains to anywhere?” He shook his head. There is a 17:17p.m. train as the latest option, should I choose to go to Munich.

I have a rule. Figure out where you are sleeping that night by 2p.m.

I had gotten to Luxembourg at 1:15p.m and stored my bag with the luggage guy. I have mastered the art of finding free wifi – McDonalds, Starbucks… In this area, Quick Burger is the preferred option. It’s generally so crowded, I can slip through the door unnoticed and not be guilt-tripped into buying a Big Mac in exchange for Internet.

Bed search. Am I sleeping in Luxembourg? Looks like no. So, how about Strausbourg? One night one guest? Hostelworld.com says no results for the date you are looking. Try a different city or change dates requested. Hostelbookers.com responds the same. I’m pretty sure Hostels.com didn’t bother trying. What about little French towns like Nancy and Dijon? Nope. Fine. Munich, how are you doing? Oh you’re wide open. You’ve got plenty of space. You’re half a continent away, but you’ve got a bed.

I’ve been at this nearly half an hour already. To my side is a family from Ohio – parents and three young sons. I swear, I swear I will love my child, but either I was so cranky or I am the least maternal person on earth… The entire time Quick Burger’s painfully slow Internet was reinforcing how without bed I was, the mother was narrating to her other two sons, in a sing-songy Elmo voice, what the third son was doing, rotating, as each child did something spectacular, like eat an ice cream cone well. Or finish his fries.

Whatever. Cute. What was killing me was that she was talking to her husband in the same voice, just in case her kids cared about the charges at their hotel or how she feels eating at Quick Burger is a step up from McDonald’s because at least it’s local fast food. It was like she didn’t know him.

The whole time, I’m struggling. This can’t… it can’t be how she talks to him.

These children would not have been conceived.

It’s 1:55p.m. We’re doing this. 5:17 to Munich. It’ll be a great next couple days there.

No, wait, I’m not an idiot. Three connections of ten minutes or less? One is going to get screwed up, and I am not prepared to later deal with stranded in closed train station territory. 4:24 to Munich.

It’s 2. Let’s do this, Luxembourg.

I found a bus stop, looked at the map for the big, bold CENTRE and pointed myself that direction. Four minutes later, I was there! And golly Luxembourg is gorgeous. Im sure summer is pretty, but this month of European fall has been astounding. It has only rained five days my entire trip, and only once has it rained hard enough to squash plans. The other three became sunny within a few hours.

I cruised around Luxembourg. Park? Check. Cross a bridge? Check. See official government buildings? Check. Browse upscale shopping district next to nice church? Check.

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I found an awesome building. It was large, it had a gate, it had crests hanging on the gate.

I found the palace!

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I have no concept whatsoever what the Luxembourg government is, but it is obvious to me they have a king and queen. I get photog happy and took a bunch of pictures from all sorts of artsy angles, and then I notice the crowd walking the grounds. Slowly walking the grounds.

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I’d been stalking the nursing home.

This set me off laughing harder than I’ve ever laughed by myself at myself. I felt absurd. I decided it was time to get out of Luxembourg. I ran to the grocery store for water and snack options. My water always sparkles now – I only drink water and forms of coffee. It costs the same to make it fun water.

Highlight: That. Also getting told at Quick Burger I’d have to wait for my burger.

Oh, and I watched my reflection trip.

Boarding the train out of Luxembourg, I met four American college kids. They’re from three different schools in the United States but all are studying abroad in Germany together. I got some tips, shared some photos, made some friends! I’ve got more places to be in Germany!

Highlight: Finding out from Eric the train I was on would be traveling along a river with a bunch of castles, just around sunset.

Luxembourg to Trier. Trier to Koblenz. It was there my new friends and I split up – I was off to Frankfurt!

I had five minutes to catch my Frankfurt-Munich connection. I arrived twenty-five minutes late.

I quit. (stomps feet) I see a Marriott. I’m calling Mom and Dad.

Or not… Because at the end of the platform is a little machine that, when I press buttons, tells me it’s 20:41:53 and there’s a train to Mannheim at 20:50. Arriving in Mannheim at 21:28, I just have to catch the 21:32 to Munich!

And I did it!!! I also pointed to what I thought was an Italian wrap. Ended up with a tuna wrap.

Mmm, train station tuna.

I arrived in Munich. My hostel tonight, checked in after midnight, cost me 24 euros. This better be a damn good free breakfast buffet, because I am loading up.

Tomorrow is a new day. Today wasn’t lost. I can’t complain about messed up international travel plans planned eight hours prior. Whatever. No matter what I do, everything is new.

I’m going to freak my family and friends out when I go home and major inconveniences don’t inconvenience me.

What Lassie? Timmy’s in the well?

The most stressful point of the day: Realizing I’d connected the dots between Frankfurt and Heidelberg instead of Frankfurt and Mannheim. I was doing so well.

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Big in Brussels

It was not love at first sight.

I’ll admit it now, it’s never going to be love. It was a decent first date. I ate well.

I got off the train at Brussels Noord, the north station closer to my hostel than Central Station. Take this exit, you enter the business district. Take that exit, you enter sketchville/not even fun red light district. I made the wrong turn. First impression: Brussels is ugly.

I could see a lot of tourists. A lot of ugly buildings. A lot of waffle shops. Plenty of expensive chocolate shops.

I was not enchanted, rather, I was pretty crabby. I certainly didn’t want to take any pictures, not even of the rather gorgeous town hall. The rest was pretty bad. I started playing a game to pass the time. Find The Cheapest Belgian Waffle (answer: Waffle Palace, one euro waffle with no toppings… which is how you eat it unless you’re a tourist).

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And then I got myself lost.

The entire day, I was aiming for the big city park, next to the big Central Station. It’s not a hard concept in the slightest. I could not get a grasp on pointing myself in the right direction. I zigged and zagged through Brussels.

Just after going down, and regretting that I’d gone down, a giant hill, I saw a glass elevator. Next glance made me realize I was near a rather prestigious looking building. I took the elevator up.

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I was at the nearly deserted Palais de Justice. There were three other tourists, and a man playing fetch with his dog in the halls of it.

Man, I want to play fetch with my dog in the halls of a regal courthouse.

Strike that. Man, I want a man who’ll play fetch with my dog in the halls of a regal courthouse.

Anyway. I was at this building with nearly no one else there, I had no business being there, and I enjoyed every minute. Up and down the stairs, up and down the halls… It was my own giant play place for ten minutes. Just one big empty building.

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And then I was off to find the giant park. I knew it was next to the train station and the cathedral.

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I found it! (pats self on back)

No, I didn’t. I found a medium-sized park next to a television station and a church.

I swear I don’t make this stuff up.

Whatever, I dig ponds and mediocre-sized parks, plus this park had the largest, angriest sounding birds I’ve ever seen outside of a zoo. Big, big freakin’ birds.

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But now, where the heck am I? I’m so sore from yesterday’s adventure, if you couldn’t have guessed that. I might have been a bit overzealous, what with fifteen miles of riding the first time I’d done it in six years. I looked at the map and realize I have officially crossed the city. I’m still a twenty minute walk away from Central Station, which, if you didn’t put together, is in the center.

I have nothing but time, but honestly… Once upon a ten months ago, I hated walking to class. “Only a couple miles walk” from home is always going to sound like a bitch.

I did it, I walked it, I ignored public transportation because that’s apparently what I do, and on the way, I finally saw everything I meant to see all day. The royal plaza, the grand park, the main market plaza, the cathedral. I saw them at the prettiest time of day, too, as it was just after sunset and getting dark.

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I maybe could like Brussels, after dark.

Jut like. But no one goes on a second date with someone they don’t like to look at in the daylight.

It’s mutual. Brussels doesn’t want to go on a second date with me either. I only had two and a half days in Belgium. It’s really hard to fit in a to-do list that includes Belgian beer, Belgian waffles, Belgian fries, and Belgian chocolate.

But because I’m a freakin’ champ, I did them all.

Twice.

On a final note, if someone tries to pickpocket me this week, they’ll find not much money but seven different bars of dark chocolate. It looks like Belgian Oompa Loompas set up shop in there.

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Breakthrough in Bruges (or Just Outside)

Everyone has their simple things they “can’t” do. Not well, at least. I “can’t” dance. I “can’t” cook. I “can’t” ride a bike.

Walking Bruges wasn’t going to take me all day. It was going to take the morning, at most. And if lapping an entire town alone isn’t lonely enough, sitting in a cafe alone because you’ve hit up all the streets… lonely. Especially after a few months, the sound of one set of footsteps starts to echo.

So I rented a bike.

Which, to a normal, average person, is no big deal. Anyone can ride a bike. Bicycles are for rent all over Bruges.

Except, I don’t. I haven’t ridden since I was sixteen, one day in Rhode Island, the Saturday between my two weeks of a summer course at Brown (“Reading, Writing and Public Speaking,” hardest class of my life, made me cry, I loved it). A new friend and I rented bikes in Newport and found all the mansions.

I think the time before that I was ten. I swerved off the road to avoid an approaching car, and hit the car parked in the next driveway. Punched a hole through the taillight with my handlebar. It was our weird neighbor’s car, too.

So no, I don’t ride. That’s for normal, capable people.

The map my hostel gave me cracked me up. In the tourist tips, it suggests renting. “Haven’t ridden in awhile? That’s okay – it’s just like riding a bike.”

I got mine around eleven and paid for all day, rather than three or six hours.

Fifteen minutes in, this is hard. Maneuvering traffic, reading bike vs. car street signs in a new language, peddling… Can I even do this for three hours? In jeans? It’s forty-five degrees outside, also. I’ve checked out of my hostel, left my luggage unattended, purse with all technology hung over my shoulder.

I got off the main roads and took a bridge out of town.

Maybe one of the top three decisions of this trip.

I rode to the little town of Damme, five kilometers outside of Bruges. I figured I’d treat myself to lunch there, to celebrate my ridiculous little biking success. Everything (all three restaurants) was closed. No big deal, I have nowhere to be. Syphon was two kilometers further. It’s restaurant was vacant. But one more town (name in my journal not with me) was two kilometers further.

There I found a tiny little restaurant, fireplace roaring, one woman working – cooking, waitressing, bar tending. I sat in there and wrote (hand wrote!) for over an hour. I watched this woman bust her butt. Always smiling.

Biking nine kilometers out of a town I don’t know down roads I don’t know, eighteen there and back, plus half a dozen more around town, isn’t really something to brag about. It isn’t a big exercise triumph. It isn’t all that difficult.

It’s not something I do. It’s something other backpackers do. Something my cousins would do.

It’s there a breakthrough happened. I don’t know if it’s this trip, or something else, but a shift in mentality. I wonder if everyone has this moment – I hope they do. When you think you’re clumsy, you’ll fall off your bike. But if you let yourself think you’re capable…

That feeling has shown itself more and more recently, in multiple aspects – travel, writing, relationships, life. Everyone hears “believe in yourself” and everyone has read Little Engine That Could, but to feel it – you almost wish it happened before you stepped on your college campus, your first day of work… Everything might’ve been easier.

It’s nice to feel it today. I’m not complaining. I just swung by my first hostel, picked up my bag, and biked the 3km across town to drop it off at hostel #2. That was hard. Completely necessary – my new hostel is nowhere near anything good. Pretty sure the best part about it might be leaving it…

The pictures below are my favorites of this entire trip, if only because they’re all taken from the seat of a bicycle.

It was a perfect, no regrets kind of day.

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