November 28, 2020

Get lost with Liz: a weekend in Belgium

Liz Edwards views a map of Bruges during a day trip to the city. PHOTO COURTESY OF LIZ EDWARDS

After settling into Leiden quite nicely, familiarizing myself with Leiden Centraal railway station, failing miserably at navigating Amsterdam (I didn’t really want to see Anne Frank’s House anyway) and getting used to a new school and its different methods, it was time for my first real “big girl” trip. The destination of choice was Belgium and the stops to be made were the cities of Brussels and Bruges.

This country was my first destination because of its close proximity to the Netherlands, and because many people I knew had already gone and loved it. I wanted something simple. Still, the trip had its hiccups, starting with one big one—should I, a five-foot female, travel by myself?

The processes of deciding on a hostel, figuring out what I wanted to see and determining when I should go were nothing in comparison to resolving if I should do it alone. I didn’t know the area, I’m no professional at trains and I had never been on the metro system in Holland. Basically, I don’t have travel skills. I can barely read a map, for goodness’ sake. Simply put, it appeared to not be my safest option.

Because everyone I knew made it to Belgium within the first two weeks, I wanted to go, too. But my options were either to go alone or to not go at all. And there lies the conclusion to my predicament and the true beginning of my journey. In my mind, I had Europe at my feet, and I was not about to miss it over my and my travel mates’ schedules not coordinating. So I went. I went alone. And, to be honest, I would do it again.

I ran on my own schedule and saw only what I wanted to see. Because I was alone, I was forced to go outside of my comfort zone. I probably asked about 30 people how to do a bit of everything, from navigating trains to finding a monument. I got over my fear of approaching those I don’t know very quickly because I was not about to waste my trip due to fear or stubbornness. Though, I will be honest and say I asked older women for help most often. I  have no proof of this, but I felt like they were the safest option.

This trip also opened my eyes as to how nice people are. When I was struggling to take a self-portrait with my camera at arm’s length, another tourist would offer to take the photo for me. Of course, this should be blatantly obvious, but use caution in these situations.

Once I got past my over-active nerves, I fell in love with being a tourist. In both Bruges and Brussels, I found myself thinking that I had never before seen such beauty in-person in my life. I often entered a square or a new street with my mouth agape. The Royal Palace in Brussels felt like a journey into a world that could only exist in a movie. I can’t even guess how many chandeliers hung from its ornate ceilings. Even the sarcastic symbol of Brussels, the Manneken Pis (a water fountain shaped like a urinating boy), was adorned with regal robes and flowers all around.

More than I was struck by the beauty of Belgium, I realized how unique my trip was. I saw five beaming brides and their grooms, a marching band parade and cartoon characters floating through the city in a different parade. I could not believe how alive the city was. It was so special. I’ll never forget the little oddities.

The city center of Bruges, a Belgian city study abroad student Liz Edwards visited during a weekend trip to Belgium. PHOTO BY CAILLIN MURRAY

Bruges was gorgeous in its own right as well. It felt so calm in comparison to Brussels. Trees were overgrown, there were horse-drawn carriages and the rough cobblestones definitely gave my Converse shoes a run for their money. I felt like I had stepped into the past and I was wearing the wrong shoes. Wooden clogs might have been more appropriate. Lace adorned windows around the city and there were waffles everywhere. (The waffle is a necessity in Belgium, with lots of cinnamon ice cream, of course.)

But the best part was the most challenging: the belfry of Bruges had 366 spiraling steps of sheer doom. Needless to say, I accepted that challenge and conquered the tower, just to be rewarded with the view of a lifetime. I could see the whole city, the rooftops of old. It should have been on a postcard. Hell, it probably is.

I have only made it to two cities outside the Netherlands and I know I have so much ahead of me. It is scary, but I am no longer shaken. This study abroad journey has become so much more than just getting from point A to point B and seeing everything in between, as I had originally thought.

For the first time ever, I am seeing that every time I do something, no matter how small, I learn and it is so worth it. This is my trip and by pushing myself I get rewarded,  like with the reward of the amazing Belgian chocolates I hand-selected patiently in two shops. Seriously, they’re mouthwatering.

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