The Journey South

I used to think the journey from Morningside Heights to JFK Airport was a long one. But that was before I went from Montreuil-Sur-Mer to Brussels Charleroi International Airport in a single day. Four trains, a shuttle bus, a cab ride and then a plane the following next morning is apparently the cheapest way to Spain from here.

Being that it was our third break in the school year (Vacances d'Hiver), a few of us planned a trip to migrate south for 10 days and get out of the cold, rainy weather of Nord Pas de Calais. Our destinations? Spain and Portugal. Our tickets on Ryanair and easyJet for the entire trip were really cheap, and being that it is actually easier to fly from Brussels Charleroi rather than Paris Beauvais (seriously, Beauvais is very far from Paris), we decided to head to Palma, Mallorca from there.

My trip began with waiting for the train at the station, to catch another two trains to Lille. Being that it was a clear day and before noon, I thought there would be no problem or delays. But of course there was. My train to Boulogne-Sur-Mer, which had departed from Arras, was 15 minutes late. And there was only a 22-minute gap in between that train and my connection to Gare Calais-Frethun. By the time the rickety old train finally reached Boulogne, I had two minutes to get myself and my two duffel bags (one of which I was going to live in Lille) four platforms over to the next train. I made it, gasping for air as I flung myself down in my seat, then asking a family in front of me if in fact I was on the right train, which they confirmed.

Up until this point, the sun was uncharacteristically bright with plenty of blue skies hovering over the Cote d'Opale. About 30 minutes later, I was disembarking into a sea of fog. I had to make one more transfer at Calais to catch the TGV to Lille Europe. (Being that it was a Saturday, there are fewer trains towards Lille, thus I had to make two changes, which is unusual but the only way to get there in under two hours.) When the train left me at the platform, it railed away into the mist where I was unable to see it any longer. Within the span of an hour, I had changed from sunglasses to earmuffs. Such is the weather of Northern France.

But within 20 minutes, I was whisking away down to Lille on the high-speed TGV train. After arriving, I completed a couple of errands, namely dropping off one of my bags with my laptop tucked inside at Rachel's apartment in Fives, and then going to La Furet du Nord (a giant bookstore chain) to pick up a copy of The Alchemist for the journey. Being that a Brazilian wrote this novel about a young man traveling in Andalucía (and beyond, but I won't ruin it), I thought it was relevant enough and appropriate for my own trip down to the Mediterranean.

By late afternoon, it was time for the two Rachels to hop on board the Eurostar train to Brussels. Only a 30-minute journey, we arrived at Gare Bruxelles-Midi right on time. Brussels is definitely one of those cities where I visited once and thought, "Okay, well I've seen it and I don't have to come back." Somehow I've been to the quirky little European capital three times now, each time wondering, "How did I get here again?"

We met up with Liz inside the station, and our first order of business was to find the shuttle to Charleroi airport, since we were staying at the Etap Hotel right next door to it that night.

Just to make things clear: Charleroi is not Brussels. Ryanair might say it is, but it's not. We learned this the very, very hard way. I knew we were in for a trek getting there, but it was beyond anything that any of us expected. After meeting up with Liz, we asked a few station agents where was the shuttle to Charleroi Airport. And after asking in both English and French and getting responses in both languages, all of those responses were different. And given that Bruxelles-Midi is the size of a small airport and one of the largest train hubs in Europe, walking around the perimeter of this station countless times while carrying somewhat-heavy bags on our shoulders wasn't exactly relaxing.

After about 20 minutes, we finally came upon a bus that departed every 30 minutes to Charleroi. Being that the description of this bus matched the one we had read about on the Internet before, we assumed this was the correct connection and decided we'd go eat in the center of town first before heading out to the middle of nowhere.

So after getting on a quick train to Bruxelles-Central (which you can only get on if you already had a major train ticket from TGV, Eurostar or Thalys to Midi), we hopped off and ate at the same restaurant I ate at on my first voyage to Brussels in 2004. And what did I eat? The perfect Belgian meal: fries and waffles. All that was missing was a side of mussels, but I had to keep costs down somehow.

After dinner, it was already nightfall, past 6 PM. We were aiming to get back to Midi to get to the bus by 7 PM. After trying to figure out the Brussels metro system for a few minutes, we got onto a train, which transported us back to the 1970s. I seriously questioned whether or not the Berlin Wall had fallen yet or not. It's not that the train was old itself, but it had that mustard yellow and brown color scheme going on that only goes with a shaggy carpet.

Two metro trains later, we were back at the bus stop outside of Midi. Only, after we got on the bus and were about to pay, I asked the driver if he was going to Charleroi. He said he was going to the town, but not the airport, and that we shouldn't board that bus. So we hopped off quickly, and a Belgian girl tried to help us by suggesting we take the train. However, I think we were all sure the train was more expensive and the shuttle bus was only supposed to cost 13€.

So we headed back into Midi, asking two more times where to find the bus. Finally, we tried the last door out of the station that we hadn't exited from before, and sure enough, we found the navette (airport shuttle). After a 45-minute drive, we got to the airport. At this point, it was approaching 8:30 PM. We could even see the neon-blue sign of the Etap hotel, but being that it was dark, freezing and no sidewalks in sight, our only option was a taxi. But when we got into the first taxi, the very brash driver informed us sharply that it would cost us 20€ minimum. For a five-minute drive. So we hopped out of there as faster than we got in. We almost started to walk out of the airport, but there was really no safe way to do that, especially in the dark.

We headed into the terminal, which looked recently renovated, shiny and spotless. (I've always imagined Ryanair to fly into places with wooden shacks for terminals - somewhere that hasn't been renovated since the 1950s and might have an old TWA sign hanging off its hinges, but it turned out to be the quite the opposite on this trip.) As we were unsure at this point what to do, Liz called the Etap concierge, who saved the day by sending over a taxi that only cost 7€ total.

Etap is a hotel chain in Europe that is hit or miss. It's quite cheap (our room was only 49€ per night, then split amongst three people) and they're available in most cities and near most airports. However, they're not always clean (or bearable, as I've read in some reviews). But thankfully, after a voyage that lasted nearly a day just to get to an airport for a 20€ flight, ours was one of the nice ones, with a friendly staff to boot. There was even a TV! What a treat just a simple TV has become after living without one for months.

However, we had only just begun our vacation, and we were already exhausted. Several different phone alarms woke us up at 6 AM, at which point we gathered our things, headed back down stairs and into the taxi back to the airport.

There was one thing that had kept me nervous the whole previous day: I typed in my passport number wrong when checking in for the flight online. I was terrified that because I added an extra digit, they might not let me board the plane as some kind of security precaution. However, it turned out that they didn't even care, just taking a glance at my passport and stamping my boarding pass, "Visa Checked." It was lucky for me, but I certainly hope that any potential terrorists don't try to plan their journey through Charleroi.

Soon later, we were on the plane, flying over the clouds and the European continent to the Spanish island of Mallorca…

Lunch in Brussels

rachel-king-brussels-belgian-waffleAfter a week of exploring Lille's crowded squares, gothic churches and lively nightlife scene, there weren't many options available on a Sunday afternoon. Usually in France, grocery stores, bakeries, many shops, etc. are closed on Sundays, and no one was going to show available apartments to my friends that day either. Plus we were hungry. So what were we to do? Have lunch in Lille? No...we went to Brussels! Why? Because we could. Brussels is just a short, 30-minute ride on the TGV from Lille. And with our SNCF resident discount cards (for ages 12-25), it was only €13 per person to get there. After waking up around 11:30 AM (I think we got back to the Hôtel Moulin d'Or from O'Scotland and the African Bar on Rue Solferino around 3 AM), Rachel and I got ready slowly, as Liana and Pat eventually arrived at our hotel room. We had bounced the idea around of going to Belgium soon, but as we sat in the hotel room with the French music station playing on the TV in the background, we realized we had nothing better to do. I checked the schedule online, only to discover that the next train was in 30 minutes, and the following train wouldn’t depart from Lille until after 3 PM. Thus, we sped across the street, through Gare Lille Flandres and then the following 400 meters to Gare Lille Europe. Actually, we made it with plenty of time to spare since there wasn't a line at the ticket counter.

I had been to Brussels once before in July 2004, and the weather was much fairer and warmer on that Sunday in late September than that chilly, foggy summer day. I never really planned on returning to Brussels, since there really isn't much to do there besides eat. When we arrived in Brussels (Brussel/Bruxelles, depending on your language of choice), we had to walk a bit to reach the center of town, as we arrived at Midi Station instead of Central Station. After a 10-minute walk past a sketchy flea market and a more rundown part of town, we made it into the Grand Place of Brussels. However, most of the square was closed off since they were cleaning up from their Braderie. At this point, we remembered the reason we came to Brussels: LUNCH. There are several culinary specialties in Belgium, namely waffles, chocolate, beer, mussels and fries. First on our menu were fries. We found a sandwich shop off of the main square where we all got sandwiches with both meat and fries within the bun. It was simple, cheap and delicious.

We had to walk around a bit before moving on to the next meal. As we passed through the Grand Shops corridor, I remembered something I wanted…no…needed to buy: a Swiss Army knife. On the previous night, we had two bottles of wine and alas, no wine opener. Except then Liz showed up with her trusty Swiss Army knife with a corkscrew attached, and we were set. Not only did I realize that would be useful to have around in France, but also a pair of scissors and a small knife couldn't hurt too - in case I have to fight off some wild animal out in the country where I'm living. Thus, we found a very nice shopkeeper, who informed us what was legal and not legal in Belgium and France (Mace and switch blades are not.) He suggested we travel to Holland if we want either of these items.

After walking along for a bit further, checking out boutiques here and there (including a store that had a full-size Nimbus 2000 in the window), we started making our way to the famous baby statute in Brussels. Unfortunately, about a block before we got there, some local police yelled at us. We started crossing the street when the green walk signed appeared, but by mid-street, it was red. And they don't really give you a warning with a flashing sign or anything to that effect, so we were caught red-handed by the police. It was a little startling, since they seemed really mad at us, but we walked away with a sneer verbal warning.

After being made to feel like criminals, it was definitely time for waffles. I ordered a strawberry and chocolate syrup waffle, which was so big I couldn't even finish it. We washed our waffles down with some local Primus beer (and a €3 water for me, hmph) before heading to Gare Bruxelles Central to buy tickets back to Lille. After waiting in line for at least 10 minutes before reaching the ticket counter, we were informed the next train to Lille was in one hour from Gare Midi on the Eurostar. We got on one of the shuttles over from Central to Midi, and made it almost just in time to check-in for Eurostar.

This was my first trip on the Eurostar, so it was quite an adventure. It's also far stricter than the TGV. The morning train was like hopping on the subway. The afternoon train we were booked on was headed for London, with just one stop in Lille, thus even though we were only going to France, we had to check-in at least 30 minutes prior to departure, go through security, and even speak to UK Border Control. When I got up to the UK official, she looked at me very sternly and asked me how long I was going to France for, which I responded by saying for several months. This caused her to raise an eyebrow, but I quickly pointed out my visa, and she responded by asking me why I was going to Lille. I said I teach English there, which produced a very large smile on her face. I found this hilarious, but I don't think it would be a good idea to laugh in front of UK immigration officials. They scare me a bit. The train ride home was quick, and it felt like we were barely moving. High-speed rail is just fantastic.

When we got back to Lille, we were all a bit tired. Thus, most of the evening was just finishing off the last bottle of red wine we had in our hotel room, watching some more French TV and packing up our bags as it was the last night at the Moulin d'Or. I also had to tuck in early, as I had to get up very early for the TER train to Montreuil-Sur-Mer, the town where I am living and teaching this year.