After being here for nearly three weeks, we have begun to venture off the beaten path and explore the city like the locals do. On Wednesday, I visited the Victoria and Albert Museum and was impressed by the sheer size of the place. Built in 1857, the museum houses exhibits ranging from British history to Alexander McQueen designs. During my visit, we saw their two most recently redisplayed galleries: the Medieval and Renaissance Gallery as well as the British Gallery. We focused on the way the objects are displayed, and learned about several different techniques curators use to showcase each exhibit.
Following the visit to the V&A, we visited the Wellcome Collection for another class assignment. At this exhibit, we saw three-dimensional representations of different facets of human health, like obesity, genomes and the human body. For our assignment, we had to choose two objects in the exhibit and describe how they were displayed and what techniques were used to showcase each piece. The collection was very interesting. The items were a different way to look at the body, and we enjoyed looking through each display.
Across from the human body collection was the Institute of Sexology. My friend and I curiously popped into this exhibit, and found a detailed history of sex, ranging from old-school Freudian writings to a detailed catalog a woman kept of every sexual encounter in her life. There were different artifacts from ancient history, and it was interesting to see how sex as a culture has evolved in the past two centuries. After checking out the exhibits, we ate at the café at the lobby of the Wellcome Collection. The food was delicious, and we enjoyed an amazing coconut hot chocolate with melted marshmallows on top.
After class on Thursday I met up with my roommates at the Tate Britain museum. Although I wasn’t there for long, I was captivated by the museum’s architecture. The lobby of the museum had a giant spiral staircase in the middle of the room, and when you walked down to the basement and stood at the foot of the staircase, you could look up and see the beautiful ceiling. It’s hard to explain in words the feeling that you get when you look up and just see floors of beautiful architecture. All I know is that it was incredible, and I’m excited to go back with my art history class to learn more about it. Hopefully after that visit I can better verbalize my feelings!
After leaving the museum, we went to the Oxford Circus area for high tea. One of our roommates made reservations at a pretty famous restaurant called Sketch, and I can safely say this has been my favorite place in London so far. The restaurant is renovated each year after a different artist takes charge of the design. When we visited, we walked through a room that looked like it was in the middle of the rainforest, with leaves everywhere and furniture made out of bamboos. As we walked into the tearoom, we entered a completely different space. The room we were seated in had a 1950’s vibe, with pink walls, pink suede couches and beautiful chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. Satirical sketches mocking our society covered the walls, giving the feminine room an edgier vibe.
I ordered a vanilla tea, and it was served in a cup with writing on the bottom that read, “forget about it.” The rest of the tea set had quirky sayings written on it as well, with things like “ghosts” and “dreams” written on the teapot and creamer. The vanilla tea was predictably delicious, and the staff was quick to refill my pot when I asked for seconds. The high tea was incredible. For those who don’t know, high tea practically means afternoon tea, but with the differentiating factor that small sandwiches and desserts are served on plates that are staked on top of each other. Although expensive, it was an incredible meal.
The first level in my three-tiered structure of foods included a croque-monsieur (pretty much the French version of a grilled ham and cheese), caviar and smoked salmon sandwich (shockingly delicious since I don’t eat seafood), a quail egg and caviar sandwich, and a cucumber salad sandwich. It sounds like a lot, but they were devoured in two bites! The second layer included a cream puff, a mini blueberry éclair, a small three chocolate slice of cake and a mini apple pie. The top had a gingerbread macaroon and mandarin cheesecake served inside a shot glass. On the side, bubblegum flavored marshmallows were mixed in a cup with mini meringues. The meal was incredible. I can’t stress enough how much I loved it. I think my roommates thought I was crazy after the tenth time I mentioned, “this place is amazing!”
Interestingly enough, the most memorable part about Sketch wasn’t actually the food. My mom had told me about them before, and I had heard about them from other people, but the bathrooms in this restaurant are unlike anything I have ever seen before. After exiting the beautiful pink tearoom, you reach a giant white room with a ceiling that looks like the floor of a disco. Two staircases separated by what looks like a giant egg guide men and women to the upstairs area. Inside the egg that separates the two staircases is a VIP bar. After separating to go upstairs, we found that the room is actually one giant bathroom instead of a men’s and a women’s room. Inside the unisex space are about 25 pods with small toilets inside. Inside the pods there is a pink overhead light and rainforest sounds (I heard tree frogs). The space was particularly interesting because you don’t know who could be in the pod next to yours. The sinks were dispersed along the parameter of the space, and each sink had an eclectic mirror perfectly suited for selfies! Next to each sink was a different soap statue that encouraged users to “rub-a-dub-dub” so they can clean their hands. We spent over 20 minutes in those bathrooms, exploring all the different pods and mirrors, and of course, taking lots of pictures.
After we had tea, a group of us split up to go check out some of the main shopping places in the area. We went to Dover Street Market, where we walked through a huge building filled with assorted designer clothing and a super posh crowd. We also ventured into Selfridges, which is basically a more modern version of Harrods. We walked around the giant store for hours, admiring all the designer clothing, appalled at the prices and beautiful garments for display. We then returned home early that night and began to pack for our trip to Brussels the following day.
At 5:00 AM the following morning, we rushed out of our flat to catch a taxi to the London train station. The station reminded me of the Washington-Dulles airport, with its high arched ceilings and an industrial vibe. It was impeccably clean, which is incredibly odd since we found that there are no trashcans in the station. Instead, visitors leave their trash on the floor and staff come and pick it up after you leave. After going through what was possibly the biggest joke of a security check (we could keep our shoes and jewelry, and were allowed to bring food and drinks through), I decided I was a big fan of trains. I became an even bigger fan after passing out the entire smooth three-hour ride and waking up in Brussels. Leaving the station took no more than 15 minutes as immigration was pretty much non-existent. The journey to Brussels was a complete blur, which is great news for someone who isn’t too keen on the actual traveling part of going on vacation.
Brussels was a very interesting city. For starters, it was very grey and industrial looking when we arrived. Our hotel was located a fifteen minute walk away from the center of the city, which is where we spent the majority of our time. After dropping off our bags in our rooms, we ventured off into the center of the city and explored Brussels. The first thing we did upon arriving is finding a pub to grab brunch. We settled on a place called the Danish Tavern, and after looking at the menu and realizing we didn’t recognize nearly half of the food listed on there, we blindly ordered food and washed it down with a local beer. I had a chicken kebab with some French fries, and wasn’t disappointed. After we ate, we walked to Brussels’ famous Grand Place. It’s funny to me now, after walking through that place at least 20 times this weekend, how amazed I felt when I first saw it. We had a complete tourist moment as we walked around the corner and into a square that was surrounded by beautiful big buildings with equally beautiful gold detailing all around them. At one end of the Grand Place was a giant gothic tower that could easily be mistaken as a church, but is in fact the Town Hall. Each intricately built structure represents the home of what was once a member of high society in Brussels: the bread makers, cheese makers, and the only structure still in use by its original owners, the beer makers.
At the Grand Place we also entered the Musée de la Ville de Bruxelles (Museum of the City of Brussels), where we paid four euros to see a brief history of the city as well as an exhibit about the impact the second world war had in Brussels. My favorite part of the museum, however, was a room dedicated solely to showcase all the different outfits of the Mannekin-Pis, one of the most notable landmarks in Brussels. I was most excited by the fact that there was a typical Colombian costume that the Mannekin wore on Colombian’s independence day. Other notable outfits were an Elvis Presley costume to celebrate the United States, and a big suit that looked like it was made out of multicolored balloons.
After we walked around the city’s center, we walked into a chocolate shop to try some of the famous Belgian chocolate. We bought pure white chocolate on a Popsicle stick that was then melted inside foamy milk to create what was the most interesting and delicious white hot chocolate I have ever had. After a few tasty sips, we went back to the hotel and rested until it was time for dinner.
I’m thankful for the seven years of French I took throughout high school and college, because people in Brussels don’t take too kindly to Americans. The restaurant we went to for dinner didn’t initially want to seat us after seeing that we were seven tourists, and once they did, our waitress was unpleasant and judgmental. Despite her terrible attitude, we had a delicious meal. I ate what was possibly the most delicious a warm goat cheese and honey salad I have ever had, accompanied by a pretty stellar glass of Sauvignon Blanc.
After dinner, we went to the Delirium Bar. The place was a must-see on our lists after hearing recommendations by the dozen about the hundreds of beers that the bar had on tap. We walked in and coincidentally saw a group of Syracuse students who were also there checking out the place, and we chatted a little about our trip so far. They mentioned they had plans to see Bruges the following day, and after hearing all about it from them and all my friends back home, I will admit I regret not taking the time to go and see the beautiful town. At Delirium, we sampled a few of the different kinds of beers, and one of my roommates got himself the classic giant beer boot. Towards the end of the night, we had another unpleasant experience with a French bartender who had previously gotten into an argument with another customer and took it out on my roommate and I. This was another moment where I was thankful for all my years of French, as I understood as he said “foutre” to us, and I left him without a tip.
The next day we woke up early to catch a free walking tour of the city. This was by far one of my favorite moments of the vacation, as we learned all about the history of Brussels. We started out at the Grand Place, and heard about all the different buildings that surrounded the former marketplace. We also realized that the giant town hall tower is terribly off-center, and after that, I was never able to look at it the same way again. We also walked past the Mannekin-Pis, and I won’t lie, it was incredibly underwhelming. For those who don’t know, this is a famous fountain statue of a small boy that is literally peeing. But the real shocker isn’t that the city is famous for a statue of a young boy urinating, but rather, the fact that the statue is probably no more than two feet tall and located in a random street corner. In fact, I’m almost positive we walked past it the first day and just completely missed it because it all looked so ordinary. Our tour guide got a good laugh at the looks of disappointment in all of our faces, and explained that this was a perfect example of Belgian humor. We also saw a wall that was a tribute to Tintin, one of the many comic book characters native to Belgium.
Our tour then took us outside of the tourist city center, where we climbed up a hill to see a giant gothic church, and then the parliamentary buildings. I was shocked to hear that Belgium has six different governing bodies, each with equal power. With so many branches of government, the country is very stable, as it takes forever for changes to happen. The reason for all the bodies of government is due to the fact that the country has three official languages: French, Dutch and Flemish, and therefore has separate forms of governments for each sector of the country. Another highlight of the tour was learning about the United Nations Office. Seeing as though there is so much controversy about whether or not the United Nations is a good thing for Europe as a whole, it was interesting to hear the point of view of someone who is directly affected by it. Our tour guide made an important point when she defended the European Union. She mentioned how she is the first person in many generations of her family that has never lived in Europe during a time in which her country was at war. Despite all the negative consequences that the European Union has had on the economy or any other policy, the fact that she lives in an era of peace is what matters to her most. I don’t know much about the general impact that the European Union has had on countries, only what I’ve been able to gather in the few short weeks that I have lived here. However, she makes a very strong argument.
The tour ended with a beautiful view of the city, and we thanked our guide for the great afternoon. For a free tour, it was one of the most complete and interesting visits through a city that I have done in a long time.
We returned to the city’s center to find a place to eat. My roommates were all eager to try moules-frites, or as they are known in the States, mussels and French fries. Now, I’d like to preface this by saying I hate the ocean. I know, it sounds bad, but it really freaks me out. I only like canned tuna, and I honestly don’t even like looking at fish. Whales freak me out, and anything with a shell sends chills down my spine. But being in Brussels and knowing that this is one of their most popular dishes, I told myself I would try them. Unfortunately, after walking for nearly three hours during our tour, my roommates weren’t in the mood to look all around the city to find a renowned moules-frites restaurant. Instead, we walked into the first place we saw because it advertised a 12-euro meal with free drinks. As we sat around and sipped on the cheap rosé, we realized we had walked right into a tourist trap. We placed our orders, and when we asked for water, we were told it was four euros per glass, making it more expensive than the beer on tap. Confused, we decided to skip drinks, and asked for ketchup for our French fries. Oddly enough, that was also at a price, costing 2.50 euros per cup of ketchup. So drinkless and with plain fries, we waited for our food.
The mussels arrived and I immediately knew I had made a grave mistake. The creamy white wine sauce I was promised was barely visible, and I could smell their fishy scent immediately. Weird, dried up barnacles were on the shells of the mussels, and when I opened one, I was freaked out by its squishy interior. I quickly popped one in my mouth and was overwhelmed by the slimy, fishy taste that was in my mouth. With no drink to wash it down, my eyes started to tear up and I felt as if I was going to vomit. I quickly swallowed, and pushed my plate away. There was no way I was going to eat those mussels. I settled for eating my French fries and having a couple bites of odd-tasting pasta that one of my roommates had ordered.
Following that painful experience, we decided to get something a little more promising. We went to the Maison Dandoy, a place well recommended by my friends for some authentic Belgian waffles. I ordered a waffle with whipped cream and Belgian chocolate, and all of the unpleasantness from the mussels immediately went away. It was the most delicious and perfect waffle I had ever eaten. It was so good I was worried that once I leave Belgium I would never be able to find a waffle that tasted the same again.
On our way home, we found a street vendor that was selling scarves and fluffy hats. After chatting with him for a couple minutes, I found out that he was from Ecuador, and got him to give me a good deal on a hat and scarf. With full stomachs and a high morale, we made our way back to the hotel to rest before we went back out that night.
Later that night, we went to a pub-crawl guided by the same company we took our tour with that afternoon. Our guide, Omar, was a lively Venezuelan man who gave us our drinks and beer suggestions at each bar. The highlight of the night was meeting a group of Welshmen who were on vacation in Belgium for a friend’s bachelor party (or as they called it, a stag-doe). There were about 18 of them, all wearing brightly colored tights and Englishmen caps. One of my roommates and I struck a conversation with a man named Joan, and taught him about American culture. We had a great time talking to them, and they were amused by our antics, including a point in the conversation when my roommate asked if they had ever heard of The Beatles.
My night took a turn for the worse when I reached the fourth bar and realized I had been pick pocketed. To this point, we still can’t pinpoint the moment when it happened but once I realized my wallet was gone, the night went downhill. Our newfound Welsh friends helped me find Omar, our guide, and when I asked him to help me go look through all the previous bars we had been to, I realized he was completely hammered. We found another, less drunken guide to take me around, and went back with him and my roommate to each place asking if anyone had turned in a brown wallet. This is the kind of moment where I have to take a second to thank every French teacher/professor I have had throughout my life, because none of the bartenders seemed to understand me when I spoke to them in English, and probably wouldn’t have been willing to help me if I didn’t speak in French to them. Despite my efforts, my wallet was gone for good. I went home stressed out and disappointed, and was even more agitated when I returned to the hotel and found that the Wi-Fi had a nearly nonexistent connection. It wasn’t until 3:00 AM that I was able to get in touch with my parents to cancel all my credit cards, and took a moment to thank myself for not bringing my passport out with me that night.
The following morning, we spent the day retracing our steps from the bar crawl in hopes of finding my wallet. Again in French, I described my wallet to each bartender, and each one turned me down. Frustrated and upset, I realized it was a lost cause. Morale was a bit low the rest of the day, and we spent the afternoon browsing around the shops and checking out any parts of the downtown area that we missed. The highlight of my day was going to Grand Place one last time, and seeing a big, fluffy corgi plopped happily in the middle of the square. I ran over to pet it, but before I reached the fuzzy creature, its owner pulled it away and he got too far from me. We also were stopped by what we guess is Brussels’ version of girl scouts, who asked us to take a picture with them for a scavenger hunt they were doing. We left Brussels that afternoon, and arrived at our flat back home that night.
Despite my lost wallet, I had a great time in Brussels. I love their waffles and chocolate, and thought that the city had a beautiful and rich history. Although we had some unpleasant experiences with some of the locals, others were very nice and helpful, and even complimented my French! My only regret is not visiting Bruges, but that’s all the more reason to go back. This week I need to buckle down and focus on school as we’re travelling again this weekend. If you’ve been to Dublin and have any suggestions as to where I should I go, please let me know!