Alternative Brussels

Brussels North (Brux Nord) is just far enough away from the city centre to escape the touristy trap, and business bustle. You can get a sense of life’s grittier side. The reality of poverty – just as anywhere else on its outskirts – is never far from sight. What you do have to watch out for is traffic, not always easy to negotiate through, and stopping at a green crossing is for them discretionary.

Generally the hotels are cheaper. Mine was part of a bar-restaurant. It felt strange having to walk through it to get to my room. There was no side door, so every time I went out I felt the need to say hello – or at least some kind of friendly acknowledgement – to the staff. Typically, as a Brit, I never bothered to mention the problems, such as the mismatched TV remote (no English speaking stations anyway so I wasn’t too bothered) or the likewise mismatched (reverse indicated) hot and cold shower taps. Surely someone else either had or would. At least I had free wifi, which meant UK radio – essential company when you’re on your own.

Next morning brought with it leaden skies that promised to last all day. Still, I had a plan for the day. Firstly, I just needed a drink to go with my lunch: bread, cheese and cereal bars – since I always take lots of those. And rarely eat out, not just because on my own it draws attention but i’m vegetarian and on a tight budget. Excuses, I know.

A vending machine at the station would suffice. The arrival day I had used the adjacent shop, staring at various types of cheese, and even asked a woman what she thought would be vegetarian (since none are marked with a V). She didn’t know but seemed amenable to my asking. I wondered afterwards if it seemed like I was just trying make conversation. In British supermarkets I’d never speak to young women customers (or any customers). At the time I fell into the lazy assumption that because she wore a headscarf there was no question of her being available – and that it wouldn’t occur to her i’d make a play. It is said though that supermarkets are a good place to meet single people. But I digress.

I get so dependent on my GPS map that I wonder if i’ve lost what little ability I had at navigation. But approaching the station I was sure I had to turn right, and thought for once not to use my phone map. Mistake: there was no way of walking round to the other side, so had to turn back. The south entrance has a rolling LED display. Odd – and that I missed it. Don’t know if my short-sightedness and typically male lack of peripheral vision accounted.

The first destination: the Atomium, was map-saved. Just needed to follow the least congested route, which involved getting as near to the park as possible. I have to admit to not feeling confident crossing many of the roads in Brux north. They seem less ordered than in the UK.

The Atomium in a central tourist hub, has a tempting set of stairwells to reach the lower atom. But I had to save my legs.

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The next destination was the Museum of the Far East (or: Musées d’Extrême-Orient). I wanted to get there via the park. But again, not checking my phone every minute I strayed down the wrong path. Turned back by still failed to take the correct route. I had realised the right path as soon as i’d got onto the wrong path, but stupidly was too embarrassed to make another about turn. Most likely no one cared but anyway there was no hurry to get there. Nevertheless, I had this notion of another me who made the better choices and was reaching the destination – with a spring in his/my step and a sense of accomplishment. As it turned out I reached the museum and was fortunate to happen to be crossing the roads towards it at the same time as a couple, whilst simultaneously they were in some discussion with a beggar woman, who probably seeks out tourists. Well, good luck to her, I thought. Begging is no worse there than in many parts of the UK.

The actual museum was closed for restoration but I could still explore the encompassing grounds. No formal entrance, or guard – or anyone collecting donations. Maybe the beggar woman had taken that role, unofficially. The Japanese Pavilion and Chinese architecture looked magnificent, even in the grey daylight!

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I got back to the hotel inappropriately early – about 15:45 local. A maid/cleaner called about half hour later. Could there have been any possibility of her cleaning while I was there? Does that ever happen? She was a good ten years my senior so unlikely to be worried about anything I might try with her. Anyway, I told her it didn’t need doing.

I needed to restore my energy and be well-prepared for the night ahead.

 

Read more of my travels: Sin Cities – An Alternative Exploration of Europe (Amazon UK)

Sin Cities (Amazon US)

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Portslade – Brussels (part1)

Ever been in the grip of an overwhelming craving? Well, mine was the most unusual. Maybe the intensity of cravings is something you forget, but this was more than anything I can ever remember.

On the journey to London Victoria I discovered I’d left a sandwich at home (vegetarian turkey&stuffing), thinking I’d packed it but only realising I’d hadn’t when starting my lunch on the train. Suddenly the taste of that sandwich would have been the most wonderful thing. I even considered finding a Tesco in London. This craving was becoming all-consuming, to the point it might cause me to make some stupid error for a lack of focus on the travel. Somehow I got through the oftentimes tricky tube system. Having some familiarity with it helps, but thought it was only a matter of time before I made a slip-up. But somehow made it ok to St Pancras. I had a vague hope there’d be a vegetarian shop (not just restaurant) at this massive international station. But no.

Once on the Eurostar my hope for a turkey-substitute sandwich was all but gone. But the craving hadn’t. It’s not that I consider myself to have an addictive personality – although giving up alcohol would be a challenge. I can usually go a week without it, without craving it. But what I was experiencing then went so much deeper than mere hunger.

The worst thing is knowing something you could have had is now unobtainable.

There was so much to look forward on the trip. I had to forget about this flipping sandwich!

Read more of my travels: Sin Cities (Amazon UK)

Sin Cities (Amazon US)

Post-travel security…?

We all expect to have our luggage scanned before setting off abroad, even with Eurostar. But on arrival? This happened to me yesterday after exiting the platform at St Pancras! I was wondering what They thought I could have smuggled into my bag between Brussels terminal and London. Did They suspect there was a dodgy member of staff at Brussels Eurostar I was collaborating with in my sophisticated criminal operation?

Of course, that notion is absurd! So I’m trying to get answers, such as was I stopped at random, or targeted?

Thanks for indulging me in this rant.

I hope resume normal blogging soon.

Stuttgart

Stuttgart is not the cheapest city to stay in Germany. Yet it has so much to offer, something I did not fully appreciate on my first visit two years earlier. Firstly, the walk in mid November. Although the trees had variously lost their flame and yellow leaves there was still enough of the wondrous majesty of a seemingly endless forest. 

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The weather was perfect, at least for one day. Passed a number of people, either walking alone, in a couple, some joggers. No dog walkers (which makes a nice change from the UK). Never quite sure if I should say hello/guten targ. The few times I did it was barely a mumble. There’s no reason why these passing encounters should be awkward, but many of them were. I always am listening to something, in this case it was 5live streamed – as I find it difficult to break links with my home country; comforting when you’re alone, even though the discussion was mostly centred around Brexit (that nagging and seemingly unresolvable issue of 2018). Well, it’s no surprise that German 4G is exemplary even deep in the woods.

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I kept going for miles and miles until eventually I reached some arbitrary point (at the bottom of a hill) where I decided it was time to turn back. Afterwards it seems ridiculous not to have kept some track of my distance. But this is something I never do. Maybe to know will only make me feel more tired.

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Had to think about the following night. The following night was when it was going to happen. I had to keep something in the tank. Did not want to feel like last time, where I was just too knackered. Stopped off at Aldi for essential supplies, including a 70cl bottle of my usual, trying not to care about the mature woman cashier’s probable disapproval. Fact is, I don’t hope for a warm greeting at these budget places; the staff are surely not paid enough to be friendly.

The night didn’t go quite to plan…

Continue reading: An Alternative Exploration… (Kindle UK)

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Cologne, Pt 3: the days after…

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Cologne in a warm sunny June is invariably going to seem like a fine place to holiday – and so the 5 mile walk to my next hotel in Marsdorf, despite being loaded with luggage, was pleasant. I sensed the serenity of others.  Even motorists were careful to slow near pedestrian areas. This felt like such a contrast to the freneticism of neighboring Düsseldorf – though that was well into the autumn.

And so I continued on, along the canal paths and peripheral tree-lined routes, stopping at a bench. There were two close together with few people passing so it didn’t occur to me that anybody would want to sit on one. But as I got up to leave a woman stopped, off her bike, to sit on the adjacent bench. I was listening to music on earbuds so wasn’t sure I heard her say hello to me. But anyway said hello to her and she responded in kind. Well, as I’d already got up to leave I did the predictable thing and kept to that plan. So had I missed the one opportunity to meet my ideal partner? That’s the question that stuck with me, just the vague possibility that I had. Assuming she was German there might have been a language barrier. I’ve got passed the stage where small talk – especially when it is limited by the language barrier – serves any use. No, if I’d been bold enough (aided by a good amount of my leftover vodka) maybe I’d have cut to the chase. After all it was fairly obvious I’m single, with all my luggage. She seemed about my age or a bit younger. And here I am typing this (first draft) in my hotel with its twin bed, wondering if I could have dared to tell her where I’d be staying, give her my phone number. Could I have chanced she’d have been that desperately in need of someone? Would I have seemed desperate or just so smitten that I’d be prepared to risk a knockback? I’m not the gambling type – I don’t believe in trying my luck such as it often seems lacking. And yet sometimes it feels there is such a thing as fate that deals a useful hand. Now rapidly approaching middle age, I don’t feel these opportunities will in future be so forthcoming. So: what if? Always the question, isn’t it, that bugs most of us; that lack of courage, of decisiveness. I should have got passed the fear of embarrassment by this stage of my life. People think there is a way to game the odds by using dating sites/apps, but my fear has always been the check-list credential comparisons, subject to which I’d fall short, I feel. Maybe that’s just my cynical outsider view. I’m sure most women, like men, have ideals but are prepared to compromise. After all, isn’t that what deep and meaningful relationships are about? Well perhaps I’m not really qualified to answer such a question….

Final day, the weather was sunny, just bordering on hot. Way too early just to head back to the airport.

I stepped off a tram – the only way to get back from Marsdorf – at Köln Lindenthal Melaten. I didn’t actually plan or know that it was a cemetery until stepping through an opened gate. There a network of paths leading through grand iconographically religious graves, rich in flowers bordered profusely with trees. It was almost overwhelming. The beauty, the serenity – for the grieving, for the dead, but maybe more than just by design.

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I was completely sober at the time. Had I been drinking, maybe it would have all been too much. It felt like something profound was trying to break through to my slightly hungover psyche, and I thought if I let it I would just break down. Only the sporadic presence of other people – visitors and grounds staff – kept me on an even keel, it seemed.

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Stepping out onto a main street surrounded by students brought me back to a normal state of vigilance. Had to find somewhere for lunch, so I went back through the park I’d become familiar with. It was crowded. When I found a metal picnic bench it was too near a path – a feeling of being noticed as the loner. Eventually found a similar bench near an empty playground. Lots of people nearby, a gathering of five or more who seemed more my age. I started on the leftover vodka, listened to an Unexplained podcast, hearing about phenomena most people have hardly time to consider but enough time to dismiss.

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More relaxed now I could head back to the station. It still felt too early. Evening flights are cheaper, but it always feels like there’s so much time to kill. I never understand why most holiday travellers drag along those wheelie cases. Surely they must be restrictive. Or is there somewhere safe they leave them on that final day?

At Cologne (Köln Bonn) airport I predictably set off their version of a body-scanner, more of an arch than a chamber. This time I was only wearing shorts and a t-shirt; hardly anything metal other than a zip and button (although it could be the alien implant). Still the guy there didn’t bother with the full pat-down.

Once through I didn’t think I had a whole lot of time, and started to hurry to the gate. I needn’t have worried. A storm was forecast to approach. And about twenty minutes before the flight was due to depart, the first flash of lightning. People had already been standing in line. Then came the delay announcements. Then came the thunder. These departure areas are well soundproofed for obvious reasons, but when the storm came overhead, it was loud enough, near after the flashes of forked lightning to know that this was a serious storm! No time was given for estimated departure. People began to disperse. The storm was right overhead, with no sign of moving away. I imagined someone joking: “Is this divine punishment for one of us who has sinned?” The mind wanders with so much time. Ever waited for an indefinitely delayed flight? You feel like your sanity is becoming increasingly fragile.

Away after nearly 3hrs delay, the relief and even happiness of other passengers was palpable. Except I was faced with the sobering prospect of a long and difficult journey home. There were more delays, disruptions. To be honest, I really felt I was losing it by the time I got back to London. But I made it home eventually.

On reflection, it was a holiday I will remember fondly. I’m sure one day I’d be tempted to go back. But perhaps I should resist that temptation.

Edited version from Sin Cities: an alternative explanation of Europe, by Aiden Rykat.

Cologne, pt2

Cologne (Köln), part 1

Sin Cities (Amazon Kindle UK)      Sin Cities (Amazon US)

 

Cologne, pt2

 

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First day I was tired. Too hot, not enough sleep in a hotel without air-conditioning. Yet the town, especially near the water, was ok. Not the humidity you often get in Britain. Had that been so I would have truly felt unsafe to be out in the town. As it was I felt liable to some mishap. Maybe chancing a crossing, not seeing a car in time. Or more likely a bike, swerving round a corner. Something you learn to be more vigilant of in continental Europe. But funnily enough I witnessed a cyclist trying to chance a red crossing and being hooted at. And then there’s that schadenfreude and a release of tension after the shock of seeing another transgressing the seemingly orderliness of a German city, as everyone else appears to be so careful. There was one road, though, were the crossing was red but the traffic had stopped. I needed to cross but hesitated. When it turned green I started crossing, but now cars were turning towards me as if the lights were out of phase. It’s a dilemma: keep to the rules or judge safety by what is or not approaching. Generally motorists allow for this.

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I stopped at Aldi for the requisite vodka. The assistant said guten targ. I always feel there’s no point greeting in the native language if you’re not able to continue in it. With his hipster beard he looked in any case like the type who could speak good English.

Anyway a sense of relief to get back safely to the hotel ready to start on the drink. Well, I was hoping for further relief that night. Before that – as it was only about 3 or 4pm local – a chance to get some sleep. Had a few units of vodka but it still took a while to drift off but was surprised to have managed almost two hours. I often find taking more than a ten minute nap in the day not the best for mental sharpness, unless – as in this case – I was feeling totally knackered and not fit to have been out anywhere. Well, I was never expecting to be mentally sharp that night, given the level of drinking I was embarking on, but there’s drunk and there’s stupidly blind drunk – and I’ve made the mistake of being the latter too many times.

This post is an extract from Sin Cities

Sin Cities (US)