European Vacation trip I Day 8 Antwerp to Amsterdam

I woke up fairly early the next morning round 9. That time frame is my sweet spot for sure. I really would like to have a job that starts at 10 because you can go out the night before if you like or do things prior, should you want to wake up at 8. I bade farewell to the room and walked in search of a church I had passed the day before. I figured there would be something to do there, maybe catch some Catholics on the way to mass. I once again stumbled into something very cool.

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I arrived in the courtyard, which was easy to find due to the church bells that filled the air. I sat in the courtyard and listened for quite a while, five minutes or more, the bells ringing the whole time. I saw a crowd of people around the entrance of the church, but I also saw tents. People and tents = outdoor market! Brilliant location, too, right in front of the biggest church in the city so they maximized their exposure. It took me about an hour to navigate the whole market, it was shoulder to shoulder, one foot in front of the other slow walking packed. I saw people hawking knives, pots, pans, most anything, speaking in Dutch I guessed. Though we are separated by thousands of miles, selling stuff is essentially the same. There were demonstrations of how to use the newest gadget, just as I’ve seen done many times over here. No one has perfected how to chop vegetables without specialized tools it seems.

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I walked along the river and watched a tugboat as it slowly passed by.

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It was a very cool morning and I was glad to have a long sleeved shirt. I walked along the river on a road and found a food stand. They served only two things: Belgium waffles and cheese fries! Talk about selection, at least I could say that I’ve had a true Belgium waffle in its namesake country so I went for it. The cheese fries used a white cheese and a healthy glob of mayo, both of which were just dumped on top of the fries. It looked fairly messy.

The waffle had two options: full or half room which meant they squirted whipped cream into most or all of the waffle crevices. It was further topped with powdered sugar because clearly, it wasn’t sweet enough already.

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It sure tasted good as I sat and watched a carousel go round and round. I think the morning made up for the bad night I had but not for the day that lay ahead. I made the fateful decision to take the long way to the train station to avoid the pile up for the outdoor market since I knew the general direction it was in, east. Boy I was wrong.

I followed the river towards a church. The light poles around this area were crucifixes, with the light on the top of the cross, illuminating a crucified Christ.

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That’s exactly what I would want to see late at night.  It felt very Exorcist like. I rounded a corner to check out a cool building. It was very square, bricks and glass. This turn to check it out nearly cost me a whole lot.

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I continued walking east/south with the idea that eventually I’d be on the road to the train station. I walked for a long time so I ducked into a market for some water. I made a point to check out these small markets that seemed to be everywhere. They were just big enough for the basics, but nowhere near the Wal-Mart or Target sized stores over here. It’s like a couple 7-11’s under the same roof, but you had real, fresh fruit, vegetables and meat. I selected what I thought was water but actually was a no calorie, lemon/lime flavored water with CO2! It was like drinking Sprite, but no sugar which is totally the way to go.

As I walked I noticed there weren’t many people out. A bit longer and I started to see women in veils and men with long beards. I had walked right into a Muslim neighborhood. People looked at me, but no one said or did anything. I wasn’t really scared, more on guard just because I was a minority, a visitor to their neighborhood. I smiled at everyone which is the best and only option I had. I kept walking towards what I hoped was the station or at least a part of town I recognized. Why did I start hearing the sounds of cars speeding? A few more blocks and I found out: I’d walked myself right outside the damn city! I was parallel to the highway now, what happened?

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At this point, I freaked out! I mean I was by the damn highway, no telling which way to go. It was too far to back track so I had to think. My phone has a compass so I tried to figure out west. I sat down on a bench to calm down for a moment. Then, faintly, I heard something familiar. Yes, that sounded like drums, perhaps even a guitar, too. It’s coming from a westerly direction so maybe this is the way to go. I had no other choice than to follow my ear or hope for a cab. A few blocks later things look vaguely familiar.

I tell you it was a scene out of a movie as the trees parted to reveal a hotel, then a long van with a live band playing inside! Not only that, but there were tents, beers and brauts! In mere minutes I went from terror to elation. I was not only safe, I was soonndrinking Jeffe, a Belgium beer, watching a band play 60’s rock tunes! They had a long truck that had an opening on one side and they were set up inside. These guys probably drove around cities from parking lot to parking lot to play. A small crowd showed up and I watched a couple of girls dancing and just having an absolute ball in a hotel parking lot. Amazing, saved by rock n roll again!

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I finished my Jeffe, which not a beer I enjoy, but tasted very good this day, and headed up the road to the train station. I was finally, truly on my way to Amsterdam. I wanted to get to one place and just stay and hang out there. No more long walks, computer cafes and feeling lost. I had such a big smile on my face when I saw the train station. I saw some side doors so I figured I’d go in and see if I could get information about the next train to Amsterdam. Turns out I finally made the right decision as I was literally right in front of a large sign with train times as well as the escalators down to the right tracks. Adding to my luck was the fact that the next train was moments away, so if I hadn’t turned when I did, I would have missed the train. I just walked down and got to the platform to wait maybe 5 minutes before the train pulled up. I sat down and began to smile, a small chuckle. I had done it, really made it to where I wanted to go. I had traveled by train from Madrid to Amsterdam by myself! It began to rain and I didn’t care, I was in a warm train looking out for windmills. I was going to have a good time for the next few days, guaranteed, in Amsterdam!

I had hoped to see windmills, guy in wooden shoes and other stereotypes on my trip, but I didn’t see one. It didn’t matter once the train stopped and I stepped out into the air, into the city of Amsterdam! Why yes as a matter of fact I did smell herb shortly outside the station. I didn’t see a coffee shop though. I had other things to do first such as find a city map and my hotel. Then I could hit the coffee shops. I had mapped the hotel previously and I knew it was by the zoo. That was south-east so I whipped my phone’s compass and headed that way. It wasn’t too far and I could follow the signs for the zoo.

Amsterdam is such a lovely city because it’s on the water. There are bridges everywhere. Not many cars, but a lot of bikes and pedestrians. I felt at home right away. I had walked a bit when I came to some shops. I didn’t pack much so I needed socks. Think about how much room a week’s worth of socks takes up especially dirty, smelly socks. They are pretty cheap too so why not just buy some when you arrive? Get out and buy new socks, enjoy that new sock feeling on vacation. Socks are cheap, maybe 1$ a pair, so a 5$ investment will be totally worth it. Don’t pack socks, buy them when you arrive at your destination on your next vacation.

After procuring clean socks I was very near my hotel. I really loved walking over bridges and looking down at the water. I crossed over such a bridge and got the feeling that I was leaving one part of Amsterdam for another. Perhaps this was the central/eastern point. the directions from the station to the hotel were very easy and I was on major roads the whole time. Shortly after crossing the bridge I faintly heard reggae music. Since this was right by my hotel, a coffee shop would be a choice find indeed. A lone man in dreads was inside smoking so I knew I’d be back.

It was only a couple blocks before I arrived at my hotel. I had to explain that I was a day early for check in, but fortunately they weren’t fully booked. I located my room and laid down. I was here, really in Amsterdam. How did I celebrate, by taking a nap! Why I laid down I don’t know, but I do know that I slept a couple of hours. I woke up, realizing I was missing the city, specifically that coffee shop. I walked as smoothly and as fast as I could. The clouds were dark, too, rain was coming soon. I arrived just as the thunder rolled. I walked up to the counter and checked the menu. One could buy just about every strand of grass available in all weights, but they seemed to direct you to the hand rolls. I asked him what he might recommend and he just smiled and told me I was in charge; whatever I wanted would be good. I selected hash/white widow option. He said that was fine, but he did say, ‘no tobacco?’ As I found out, spiffs were rolled the Amsterdam way: hash or grass with tobacco. It cost about 5€ a spliff, very reasonable.

I selected a table by the window. There were only three men inside listening to reggae. One was just rolling spliffs. I lit up and waved my spliff at them hello style. It was my first legal joint! I stared outside at the rain. People were running from it and I laughed. I was at the place I wanted to be during a rainstorm. I decided to keep smoking until the rain stopped. What I soon realized was the grass was a lot better in Amsterdam and smoking a whole spliff by myself wasn’t a good idea. I lit up a smoke since it was still raining. I was baked, totally and there wasn’t anything anyone could do about it. I still have half a spliff left for later. I remembered there was a Chineese place right by the hotel so that would make a nice dinner.

I strolled taking in the fresh rain and smells. It was a gorgeous place to be that is for sure. The Chineese meal wasn’t anything special though I’m fairly certain the lady didn’t speak English. Lots of my encounters involved pointing and nodding.

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I was more concerned that I was coming off as being too high. I got a beer and dug in. It continued to rain off and on during the meal. I sat outside the restaurant and thought about lighting up right there. I elected to not be annoying tourist, smoking right by an entrance, besides it was 9-10pm on a Sunday. I figured I could walk and smoke and not bother anyone.  I did have a moment where I realized that I had walked much further from my hotel than I wanted. It was sprinkling so I didn’t want to get caught in the rain. I was soon back in my bed as the rain softly pelted my window. Sleep came fast.

 

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European Vacation trip I Day 7 Paris to Anvers, Belgium

I woke up, showered, open my window and watched the early morning walkers. My view as of a 24 hour porn video store. I had a 10 am train to catch soon. I had a bit of an argument, as good of an argument one can have when both speak different languages, with the front desk clerk. They put me up in a double room for the night which meant I literally paid twice as much for a bed I didn’t use. I tried to explain this, that I came in, requested a single room only to receive a double. It was little use. I ended up feeling sorry for the guy because he was the day shift and thus, not the guy who lent me the room. He said there was little he could do as the night guy was also the hotel’s manager and of course the only one authorized to refund any money. Suspicious that the one person who could do something was sound asleep and wouldn’t come to talk to me when asked. What am I to do? I applauded them on their scam and left.

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The nice thing about staying so close to the train station is you don’t need much time to hop on your train. Paris feels different from any other place I’ve been in the morning. Everyone moves slowly in the morning, but here it’s more pronounced and obvious. This reality suites me because I don’t really see the point in rising before 9 maybe 10 and Parisians make this fact an art. I don’t know if they party all night or just meet the mornings on their own terms. I imagine alarm clocks are not used much, Parisians wake up when they are done sleeping, whatever time that works out to be and then start the day.

I found a crepe place that was just finishing setting up: opening his umbrella, warming up the grille, finishing his coffee. You see, that’s what I’m talking about, every store and shop was still in the midst of opening. There weren’t signs that read: 8-5 it was more, ‘I’ll open when I get there.’ He dutifully poured batter into his skillet, which he had no doubt done many times. Vendors don’t talk much which I attributed to the early morning as well as the proximity to a train station. You figure this guy sees people from all over Europe, the world, no sense in learning more languages, there would be way too many to make small talk. I opted for a savory crepe with cheese and ham. It was good, of course, I was in Paris after all, they know how to cook.

I walked around the entrance to the train station finishing my breakfast.

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I had learned that breakfast is indeed the most important meal of the day if you are walking for hours.  Train stations are better people watching than airports. You see so many reunions and departures, all out in the open too. They don’t have TSA agents searching you, asking questions about where you are going, why you are going there, how long, etc. I suppose they trust people a bit more over here or maybe trains are such a daily, vital part of most people’s lives they don’t want to disrupt things by making people wait for scanning/searching. I do know that they wait until the last moment to reveal the track information for trains. It’s usually 10-15 min prior to departure. I’d be pacing back and forth, waiting for the information to appear on the big electronic board, convinced I’d miss my train or hop the wrong one.

On this trip I learned that I had a very prime seating preference. Just like there are rows when boarding on an airplane and groups A-D, trains also are segmented the same way. I was in group A which is a separate car towards the back. I grew concerned that the cars were filling up until I asked a train guy who told me to go into a certain car based on my group number. The car was less crowded and a bit nicer, too. I put on my headphones and we pulled away from the station. I was headed for Lille where I was told a transfer train would take me north.

It was a pretty short train ride, about 1 hour. I arrived in Lille around 11. This place was just as nice as Paris but not nearly as crowded so I liked it right away.

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I walked down the main road that leads out of the station, figuring it would take me wherever I needed to go. It was such a lovely day that I figured I’d just hang around the city for a few hours, then figure out where to go after lunch. I walked and walked and finally arrived in a square. Yes an actual city centre with an opera house and everything! It was so neat to learn or discover that city planning has been around a long time and that when done properly it makes it easy to navigate.

I walked around the square for a bit until I saw a large steeple. Ah the allure of churches is much greater overseas. You look at a church over here, especially a Church of Christ building let’s say, and they are all function, no style. Of course some European churches go way over the top with steeples and arches, statues. This particular church had a side entrance with an open door, another thing you don’t find in the US. One should figure that the safest place should be in a church as there are reminders everywhere of the right thing to do or at the least, someone is watching. This particular church had only a couple of people in it, but they soon left. I didn’t even see a clergy person. I was completely alone in a gothic church in France.

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I saw all sorts of stained glass windows, candles, crosses, you know, the usually church decor. It was just a building, come on in, but there were lit candles in this church that had all sorts of wooden pews, things that would burn quite well if one of those candles fell. You’d think they’d have a seminary student just hanging out all day, reading the bible or something, to watch over things. You know, keep the place tidy and not burned down, answer the odd question about the history, pose for a picture or two.

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I soon realized how tired I was so I sat in the back pew. I walked for at least four hours every day, didn’t really eat lunch most days. I suppose one could say I was meditating or at least trying to meditate. The goal was to try to lose thoughts, to have a blank mind so I could process and appreciate the amazing experience of being in Europe. It’s a lot harder than it seems to empty one’s mind, to solely exist in the moment. What I ended up doing was realizing how lucky I was to be overseas as well as not at work. I think not working made me smile the largest. It’s a wonderful feeling to look at a clock and know you don’t really have to be anywhere; there aren’t meetings to attend and prepare for on a vacation

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I think it was when I looked at a large crucifix that I started thinking about religion. It’s one of those things that I try not to think about because it is a difficult subject, one that doesn’t have any easy answers. I realized that I appreciated what religion gave me when I was younger, the morals, values, history, grand stories, but I have too many questions now. When I got to the point of having more questions than answers, I stopped going. I even arranged a meeting with my preacher to pose several questions I had about some things I learned about that weren’t in the bible. He brushed me off, gave me some stock answers but didn’t get to the point I had hoped he would. I guess I wanted him to tell me some grand thing I hadn’t thought of, a new perspective or study. Maybe I just wanted someone to listen to me, to take me seriously for a change. I was young then, 20, in college, basically transitioning from juvenile to young adult. When you are in the men’s business meetings and are by far the youngest, you tend to bend to the older or more vocal members of the church, that is to say the absolutist. These are the people who will spend hours arguing about minor details in the bible at church, but in their home life they are not as strident in their rule following.

After all this heavy thinking and rest I decided to people watch and have a beer.

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I found a spot just off the main road so I was assured a steady stream of people fresh off the trains. I walked into a bar that had maybe two people in it. I ordered a Duvel to which the barkeep shook his head.

‘Non! Non no: Doo-val, repeat,’  he employed. He placed more accent on the second vowel, vahl.

I couldn’t get my beer unless I pronounced the name properly! I can see how people would take this the wrong way but I thought of it as: there’s a right way and a wrong way, so this guy was trying to help me. Sure I could get all bent out of shape, that guy was a French asshole right? I could think that but I didn’t. Doo-vahl is how you say that beer’s name, simple as that. I know I would correct someone who mispronounces Pecos if they weren’t from around here. Shoot just thinking about someone calling it Pay-cōs bugs me. Pay-cuss sounds right to me.

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I headed to the patio to drink my beer and catch up writing. It’s nice to take a break and document past activities. After a while I noticed this frail, old lady wandering around. This was my first gypsy sighting! I was excited but cautious. They are professional thieves, gypsies, so I must be on guard. The barkeep was outside having a smoke when he shouted at the lady. He spoke to her and shook his head side to side: no you are not allowed here. She must be a regular beggar. I went back to writing after this incident. Around the time I finished my beer and writing, in she came again, only for the same thing to happen as she was politely pushed outside. Some things are the same no matter where you go. There are homeless or unwanted people in every city. I don’t know if she was hungry, lost, confused, or following the homeless stereotype, she wanted a drink to ward off the shakes.

I finished my beer and walked to the station. Outside the station were a couple of winos, bums who were drinking beers which is illegal in public, I suppose. The police for sure wanted several words with them and one deliberately kicked over an open beer that was on the ground. These guys seemed military more than local police. They had automatic weapons and shouted a lot. I watched cautiously for a couple of minutes, smoking so I would have another reason to be outside than just to watch the arrest unfold, I for sure did not want to get on their radar.

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I walked inside and looked up at the train board. I had a moment of panic as I needed to head north towards Antwerp but there wasn’t a city with that name. Did I get bad instructions in Paris? Perhaps I needed to get out at a different station, board another train? They have agents in every station so you can ask questions. I was only concerned that they didn’t speak English well enough to figure out where I might be going. In large cities they would have to have an expert in nearly every major language but Lille, a small city, maybe not so much. I figured all he needed to know was the name Antwerp and I’d be ok. Pointing and nodding work well overseas too.

‘Bon jour, Antwerp?’ I tentatively asked.

‘Ah oui, Anvers,’ came the reply and pointed to a city called Anvers.

Great so they have a completely different name for Antwerp over here! I didn’t feel quite so bad not figuring things out. I had about an hour before the train arrived so I decided to break a big rule. Ever since I watched ‘Super-Size Me,’ and read Fast Food Nation, I had a lot of thinking to do about what I’ve been eating. It sucks that companies don’t want to sell real food; it’s easier to pump it full of fillers and things to maximize profits. Anyway, there was a McDonald’s in this train station and I figured I should at least see what it’s like, can they really taste the same so far away?

The bonus of McDonald’s France is you can get a Kronenbourg with your meal. Beer makes everything better especially McDonald’s. Sure enough it tastes the same, looks the same, and smells the same, the only difference is the sizes are smaller. I think they also had a grilled fish option because why not right? The combo numbers are different too. The biggest chains besides McDonald’s are KFC and Pizza Hut. I think KFC was in every place I went. I just feel really sad that those are the food options people know and associate with the US. I wish we could get a real good chain going over there  maybe just an American who starts a chain for all the Americans who can’t get certain options. How much more would it cost if restaurants used real, fresh ingredients, 1-2€? Wouldn’t you pay that much if you knew you were eating real food, grown in dirt vs. in a lab? This is what I thought about whilst I ate my Le Big Mac.

After a few moments of walking from one side of the terminal to the other, I got on my train to Anvers. I always found a window seat because I was sure I’d see a windmill or something cool. What always surprised me is how fast these train trips seemed. Ride a train for an hour or so and you’d be in a different country. That’s amazing considering flying in the US for an hour and you get to Odessa from Dallas, still in the same state. Hell one hour train ride around here might get you to Denton! Sad really. I got around thousands of miles for 10+ days and didn’t need a car or bus. Doubtful I could say the same thing about the US.

It was a short time before we hit Belgium. I had a few moments to think, ‘where should I stay tonight?’ it was in the afternoon and I soon realized that I’d arrive in Amsterdam after dark if I continued the whole way there. This isn’t the most ideal way to see a city for the first time, nor would it be ideal to navigate to my hotel. I needed to see road signs and things you know? I decided on staying in Belgium, but Brussels or Antwerp? I consulted my map and euro guide. Brussels sounded cooler but Antwerp was closer. What to do? I figured that since Amsterdam was the real destination I should hang closer so as to maximize time there the next day. Also for some reason I though Antwerp would be super fancy and cool. It’s the diamond capital of Europe after all. I thought it would be like Paris or something, boy was I wrong…

I arrived around 5-6 in Antwerp. Again I was amazed at the train station. They go all out on train station designs with glass, large arches, and other architectural things I don’t know the names. This was a huge space, very high ceilings, arches, just opulent looking. Things were looking up, I had stumbled upon a hidden gem in Belgium. I get out into the plaza or square that is just in front of the station. It was cool, long sleeve weather. That’s what surprised me about a lot of Europe is even in August it would get down to the 60’s at night. I was walking wearing my new shirt and hat taking it all in.

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‘Pardon do you have a lighter? Bic?’ a man asked me in French as I walked around the courtyard outside the train terminal. He made the international hand symbol for flicking a lighter.

I apparently looked like a Frenchmen now! Ha I had one so I handed it over and he said merci! Oh man I tipped my cap and walked with a big smile! I realize I prob don’t really look French but the hat and shirt made me resemble one I suppose.

Usually my routine when I arrived in a new city was: walk down a major avenue, follow attractive woman, hope to find internet café, search for closest hostels, map it out, check emails, try to concentrate whilst men argue very loudly for the duration. I swear literally every internet café I visited, which I did in every city, was run by men.  I’d overhear from some closed room, men arguing very loud in a foreign language. This started when I walked in or was already in progress. I spent an hour in the room a couple of times and the entire hour was shouts back and forth. I half expected blows or gunfire. Maybe that is just how they communicate.  I’m used to the genteel Southern politeness and I have encountered east coast demeanor but this was like a foul New Yorker or Bostonian x5.

I did not find an internet café but I did find a church courtyard. It was amazing, every city seems to have one and they were downtown surrounded by old buildings and hotels etc. it was so great to find this place and people watch for a moment. Whilst sitting I remembered my friend Britney said that she could get deeply discounted rates at Ramada’s. I remembered this as I spied a large Ramada overlooking this particular courtyard. I had time so I figured I’d try for a sweet room. I spoke w the host and explained my situation. He showed me a form that Britney would have to sign before he could give me the room discount. I hoped it would have been easier than that but of course not, why would it? Turns out the rooms were 300€ a night so even with the discount I don’t think I would have been able to stay there.

I walked around some more, up and down streets, always trying to remember my way back to the station. That was the one thing I knew I could use if things got desperate. Hop on that train and ride to Amsterdam. I found myself wandering around Chinatown, but not a hostel or hotel in sight. I then recalled several chain hotels by the station. These would be pretty generic options, not something that would give me a local’s experience I really wanted. It was round 7-8 o’clock so my options were narrowing, the sun was setting, dusk was looming. I had once again reached that point, that moment in any trip, where you don’t care how much things cost anymore, you are going to do what you want, costs be dammed. I’m on vacation! When will I ever be in this place again, I’m going to be responsible now?!

I walked right up to a big chain hotel, room for one please. Turns out it was 40€ or about 80$ but hey, my own room! The receptionist  was very pretty and friendly. We talked a bit, she asked me where I’d been. She seemed impressed when I rattled off I’ve been to England, Spain, France. I told her I was heading to Amsterdam but I wanted to see the countries along the way. She said Amsterdam was full of drugs and whores. That was awesome! She was from Rotterdam and didn’t care much for the Netherlands it seemed. I should have just asked her to go out and talk about the city, life…see what happens. I figured this girl was so pretty, there’s no way she’s single. A horrible mistake in hindsight.

I made it up to the room. My usual routine when checking into a room was: use restroom, shower, open windows, write post cards. I think the most important thing was privacy and showering. On this trip, skipping a day of showering was never a good idea when you walked miles and miles, sweating the whole time. I flipped on the TV and started to zone out. I was really tired. It was a lot of stress from walking and trying to find lodging every day. I ended up watching most of Predator 2 and The World’s Fastest Indian before realizing how stupid I was;

‘What did you do in Antwerp, Jason?’ they’d ask.

‘I watched movies in my hotel,’ would have been my reply. No, that was not going to happen, it was not going down that way.

It was after 9, probably closer to 10 before I headed out onto the mean streets of Antwerp on a Saturday night. There was a corner bar that I walked past full of older Belgians that was very loud. They were all singing and dancing, having a real good time. They seem to enjoy things a whole lot more in Europe. I’d seen this scene before, sometimes early in the afternoon. I wondered when people worked, then I realized: most of these people are living rent free. Think about it, their houses were built by relatives decades or centuries ago. Take what you pay in rent and put that into a savings account or vacation expenses, well I’d be a whole lot happier too! If you didn’t pay rent, of course you could be a bartender,  waiter, or gardener, whatever you want, really. Over here, we move to jobs, we change house and residences often for jobs to support ourselves. There are pluses and minuses to both lifestyles, so it depends on your perspective and preference.

I was right by Chinatown where I could get Chineese food (that is how it was spelled on the signs). Sadly I was too late, most everything was closed. It was Saturday night too! in US these places would be open a few more hours but not here, they all prob wanted to go out too. I walked down some side streets but it was dark and they didn’t have many lights. I was around the ‘entertainment’ district, lots of friendly girls and dudes all around. I thought about venturing in to a European strip club but alone seemed like a  bad idea. I was fast growing concerned about my safety. The area was creeping me out, mainly due to the dark streets, I expected a dude to jump from behind a corner or something.

I knew it was time to get off the streets when a large muscle man with an obvious tranny on his arm walked by. Ok so maybe I was in the gayborhood. I was bent on getting out of here but I was also really hungry too. I saw a chicken restaurant and ducked in. They were out of chicken strips, WTF? I had to get some chicken limbs and they were super greasy too. That’s why I always opt for strips or breast pieces as they don’t seem to hold grease as much as a thigh or leg. Also this place didn’t have many soda options, just teas. I thought tea would be a healthy option but, man, I was reading my can and it was loaded with sugar and high fructose corn syrup. Their lemon tea sucked out loud. Not a good night in Antwerp. I sauntered back to my hotel, I found a computer, uploaded some photos to Facebook and chatted with someone who was online. I went to sleep round 2 am as I was riding a sugar rush.

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European Vacation trip I Day 6 Paris, France

I awoke around 8 am and waited for 2 girls, their dogs and a man to leave before I headed out. Apparently the train was late and had I realized this I could have received a refund. To do this I would have had to give up my ticket which I didn’t want to do. That was my souvenir of the amazing trip!

I stepped outside and was greeted by a fresh pee stain, unknown whether it was human or dog, but an interesting way to start out any morning, much less in Paris. It was cold so I had to put on my long sleeve shirt. This had turned out to be the best item I decided to wear at the last moment. It’s warm in Europe during the summer but not all day and all the time. Its helped out many mornings.

I passed a newspaper stand and bought a lighter. Bic is how you say lighter in French I think that or maybe the guy didn’t understand and told me the brand name. I walked aimlessly just hoping to find a street café with outside seating. I wanted to have a French breakfast with coffee and cigarettes. I kept walking, the city was just waking up or in some cases winding down. What amazed me the most is there seemed to be street sweepers and trash collectors everywhere. The street sweepers were 1 person vehicles with a big broom on the bottom just like here. They seemed to want to keep the city cleaned, but it did smell a bit.

Around 8:30 I found a café on a corner and stopped in. I picked a seat where I could see people. A waiter stopped by and I just said café and he went away. He came back with a large cup of the best coffee I’ve ever drank. It wasn’t too sweet or tart, but it was milky. They do know what they are doing in Paris when I comes to coffee.

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I did a bit of writing and smoking. Soon a group of men stopped in for coffee and wine. This is 9 am mind you. Everyone of them chain smoked. They soon left and my stomach started to growl. I looked around for my waiter. He had brought a check when he brought the coffee. Maybe he didn’t want me there. So I waited, kept my head up looking for him. I noted the time as I have heard of the shoddy French service. Total wait time 45 min to order a cheese omelet, salad and milk. I had to change seats so I was right by the door before finally I saw a female and raised my eyes and nodded, ‘I’m ready,’ I gestured.

What amazed me about this situation is how fast the omelet arrived. It was maybe 5 min, for sure not enough time to smoke a cig. It’s like the cook cracked the eggs and cooked it immediately after I ordered. I guess that is how they do it out there, you wait for a long time, get really hungry and BAM food is out!

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The milk was very fresh, cold. It was different color than I’ve seen before, not pure white, sort of yellowish white. It sure was rich though. I don’t think they know what 2% is, this was whole probably unpasteurized, straight from farm milk! One of the better meals I had on the trip.

I located Notre-Dame and the big sites on a map and began walking in the direction I thought they were. It was late in the trip that I discovered my Iphone has a compass so I could figure out which direction I was going. I walked by KFC, I mean Kentucky Fried Chicken, they seem to appreciate the colonel outside the US, they were everywhere. After maybe 10 min I realize the truth in about coffee and cigs in the morning. It hit me all of a sudden and bad too. In the US you can pop into a fast food joint and sneak in the restroom no prob. In Europe there are signs saying ‘no public restroom.’ They also weren’t very busy so they would notice and want me to buy something. I did discover on every other street or so there was a large box: ah a public toilet. The only problem is trying to figure out how to open the door when directions are in French. How about some pics people?! Oh well first one was broken.

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I walked possibly the longest walk ever to find the next one. Once I found one it was private room in Paris for a few minutes. The door closed and everything. I quickly changed into a fresh shirt as it was warming up. Sadly I couldn’t figure out how to flush the toilet, I sure hope it was an automatic cleaning bathroom.

After finding a street map I discovered I was way off from where I wanted to be. I looked up and damnation, it was looking like rain. I didn’t have any place to go, no umbrella, nothing. I decided I needed to locate the tram and take that to where I needed to be. Surely there would be an obvious stop by or at Notre-Dame.  Found a park and headed in, if nothing else maybe I could hide out under a tree or something. It was a wonderful, green park with lots of joggers and strollers. I found my way to a bench and sat down for a moment. I took it all in and looked up: cloudy, dark, dreary, rain very soon. I had to find that blasted tram and get cover. I found my way outside the park and it was right by a tram station. I had to believe that my subconscious recalled the map and I followed it, that’s the only explanation for why I seemed to find my way around the whole trip.

Once inside I had to figure out the tram ticket kiosk. As luck would have it, there were English instructions though it wouldn’t take my card. I didn’t have enough change and it didn’t take bills. Luckily a man stopped by and was able to help me by changing a large bill into coins. My eyes lit up and I said, merci as best I could. He waved. I think he was a college kid so he felt sorry for me. I checked my route and noted the name of my stop. I was headed to Notre-Dame!

I arrived at my stop and got out. The sky cleared as if on cue and I was able to spend a couple of hours hanging around the island that Notre-Dame and other sites were located.

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I’m not sure if it technically was an island, but it was in the middle of the Seine only accessible via bridge. I walked around for a bit and took some pics. I found a mail center and tried to buy postage. Everything seemed to be exact change and the mail attended did not want to make change. She merely showed me how to use the kiosk which again wouldn’t process my debit card. I sauntered off and bought a severely overpriced bottle of water for 2€, one that was 12 oz, cest le vie!

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I moseyed around the island thing alternating on upper and lower walking areas by the river. It turned into a lovely afternoon. I walked past a building dedicated to Charles de Gaulle, street artist w work better than I’ve ever seen and the usual souvenir hawkers. I suppose I could have and should have taken a tram to the Eiffel tower, but then I wouldn’t have seen the Seine like I did. I looped around the Champs-Élysées and west toward the tower. I didn’t use a map, the tower was so tall you could probably see the whole city, it was by far the tallest building in Paris. By this point I had been walking a few hours and was dog tired. I stopped for a moment on the congress of France. Checking my cell, I had very little juice left. I might run out and not photograph the tower. I had to press on or find an outlet.

I kept walking towards the tower but lost sight of it after walking into a neighborhood. Turned out to be fortunate as I saw how the locals lived. There seemed to be bar on every corner that also served some of the basics, groceries and things. People seemed to always be out drinking, smoking, enjoying life. This is the way to go.

I headed south or the way I figured the tower would be. After several more blocks, the neighborhood ended and I hit the Champ de Mars. It was very cool indeed to walk towards the tower from the lawn in front. First thing that hit me was the lawn was crowded couples and souvenir hawkers. What was odd was the cops would come in and everyone would scramble to hide their wares. I guess it’s illegal to sell in front of the tower or maybe tower images have a copyright they are trying to enforce, but there were dudes everywhere. They spread out things on a blanket and could easily ball them up and sling it over their shoulder if the need arose.

The closer I got to the tower the more people there were. I saw several dudes on their knee proposing to ecstatic women. How many of these would last? One thing is certain, there isn’t a more romantic location than this to propose though I would suspect Venice on a gondola would be right up there too. I arrived at the base of the tower and gazed up into the guts of the building. Lots of rivets, not much solid structure. It was fairly expensive admission to even climb the stairs, not to mention the insanely long lines. I opted for a soda and ice cream cone. Besides it was clouding up, probably would rain soon, the ozone was thick in the air. My Iphone ran out of juice a couple of moments before I arrived at the tower. Also for some reason the camera option would freeze up too. This only happened overseas. Why?!

Sure enough, the rain came and I was able to find a free bench under a tree to wait it out. So funny watching everyone scramble to seek shelter. There were a lot of picnickers and people sprawled out on the lawn that had to make a mad dash. It was amazing and a relief to rest. My feet were super sore. I was wearing sneakers so they were made for walking but I was averaging probably 10 miles a day. It was what I wanted to do, to set my feet on the cities and countries, to see the locals in action. It was rough but what the hey.

It was getting late in the afternoon and I figured I needed to secure transportation outside the city. Paris is super expensive and I wanted to save as much money as I could. I located a tram and headed to the northern train station, appropriately named, Nord. It was crazy packed. I looked around for ticket counters for out of city and finally found a long snaking line. What always amazes me is how people who work in places like this seem to always move in super slow motion no matter how long the line is. The DMV is a perfect parallel. I saw supervisors and ticket sellers having full conversations while everyone waited. They knew the score, we are on their timetable and we have to wait for them.

I think it took about an hour before I made it to the ticket guy. I said English s‘il vous plaît. He knew English. I said train out of Paris, nearest city, didn’t matter, just needed to go north towards Amsterdam. All the trains are full tonight. I can sell you a ticket to ride in the morning to Lille, it is on the way and you can transfer to wherever you want to go, including Amsterdam. Well good and bad news I suppose. I paid only 10€ I think and procured a ticket for 9 am to Lille, France. I now had the prospect of finding a computer room and hostel in the dark. It should be easy I was right by a major train station.

You get to a certain point in every vacation where you say, ‘dammit, I’m on vacation and when will I ever be in this city again?! I’m going all out!’ that’s when you realize you’ll be paying for this trip for the next few months but they won’t be able to take that memory away from you. Take your house, car etc but not memories, not yet. I proceeded to head to the nearest hotel, asked for a room with a balcony. Headed up, took a shower, the first since Barcelona well over 24 hours ago and took a nap.

Upon waking up my phone was charged and I could hook into the hotel’s WiFi so no data fees! I felt hungry so I looked around for a reasonably priced meal. Found a place directly across from the train station. Seemed ok, probably the least visited restaurant in France by French people. It did fine though, I mean you have an endless stream of people to watch, coming and going. So many different moods, emotions and expressions . You know there are families shipping of a daughter, son, or spouse. Maybe they were taking the big trip, the going away forever sort of permanent trip. These could also be happy moments, the return of a family member, or friend, anyone really. It’s all possible, every one of those situations is happening right now  & that is amazing

I grabbed a table, a beer and a waiter, but not in that order. They all came in due time which meant I people watched for a bit. It was fine, I mean waiting in Paris is a very different thing than waiting for just about anything you could think of anywhere else. I’d wait on the mail in Paris.

A few minutes later, the time one might take to drink 1 pint of beer, that sort of time frame, a steak + fries arrived. Of course I got a side of mayo, I was in France and again my point of reference is fries in mayo at Burger King, a much different thing to frites and real mayo in Paris. It does taste better, but still not good. I ordered another beer. I had decided that I was in good position, namely less than 3 blocks from my room. I had a key, I knew the precise route to take. I decided to get a couple more beers.

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This was my first real food since earlier, the omelets and salad. I probably walked a good 10 miles that day. For sure I walked from Notre-Dame to the Eiffel tower and got lost going from the train station to Notre-Dame. What I’m really saying is those beers effected me greatly. I spoke w the waiter for a bit, trying to understand Paris. It’s not possible, there can be no explanation, Paris just is.

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European Vacation Trip I Day 5 Barcelona to Cerbère, France

I woke up and decided to shop, get haircut and tux measurements. Oh yeah my friend Jay’s wedding was a few weeks after I get back and he said he needed info as I was a groomsman. It turned into a sort of quest to do some things I could do in the US but wanted to experience how they were overseas. I was totally not successful, but I tried.

I talked to a guy at the front desk that was way helpful in directing me to malls and barbers. I headed out but realized I was really hungry. I decided to eat first and soon found a deli and picked up some ham n a baguette. It was pretty good and reminded me of Madrid. I sat and ate on a park bench. An old man soon joined me and I said hello. He said something else in Spanish that I wasn’t too sure about so I nodded. He soon left and sat down at another bench. I think he just wanted someone to talk to and it made me a bit sad that I couldn’t converse. Another time.

I walked and found the Barcelona mall. It’s just like a US one, multi-level but they had a much cooler outdoor food court. A novel idea, an actual food courtyard! I walked around for a bit and found what seemed to be the Spanish equivalent of the Gap. Since this was August they had a lot of summer t-shirts on clearance. I also found a sweet hat that made me look a bit French. I found a restroom and changed clothes.

The guy at the hostel told me that any dry cleaners could take measurements. I found one in the mall so I ventured forth and asked them. She didn’t understand even when I used the word he said was for measurements. I tried to mime the action of measuring and she didn’t understand that either. Oh well perhaps Paris will be better for such things.

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I knew fora sure I wanted to check out La Familia cathedral as JP said it had been under construction for over 100 years. At my hostel I was able to talk to the two Finns who took the tour. They said the tour wasn’t worth it. As for finding the cathedral that is very easy as it’s the tallest thing in the city. It looms large over the city-scape. I started walking towards the direction of the cathedral. As it turned out, this was not such a swell idea as I walked through some of the more shady neighborhoods. There is an amazing lack of graffiti in most cities so you can learn what side of town you are in if you see any and I saw a lot. It was during the day so I was ok, but at night I’m sure things would be different.

Once I arrived at the cathedral it really was overwhelming to large degree. It dominates the whole skyline. I took pic after pic, it was so detailed.

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There were workers rappelling all over. They were hand carving more designs on the façade. Amazing! The line to get in was very long and I still had to go to the train station to figure out next destination. I headed into a gift shop to pick up a few things. Souvenirs!

Barcelona had just won the World Cup in soccer so there were lots of shirts and things available. I picked up a basketball jersey for Jeremy. Basketball is huge in Barcelona. Some NBA players come over and play for them too. I also got Barcelona flag for Erin and others magnets. The shop guy was a right old salesman. He was young maybe a bit older than I but he made a great case for shirts and things. He also told me Andorra was pretty and that there was a bus that went there. I ended up w about 50€ of souvenirs.

I took the train back to the main train station and found the line for out of country travel. It took awhile. There were several backpackers in front of me. When I say backpackers, I mean serious, full body length back packs. I thought it was a lost cause but I finally made it to the front. I asked about tickets to France, specifically Paris. He printed out a list, only once per day the train ran from Barcelona to Paris. He did find an alternate route to a city just inside the French border called Cerbère. Every day around 4-6 there was a train to there and from Cerbère where you could connect overnight to Paris. This was the plan now. It was Thursday and I had to start my northern trek prior to the weekend. I asked about the frequency of this trip and he said daily, ‘today or tomorrow, it is your choice.’

I opted to train it that day. He produced a ticket that would leave in a few hours to Cerbère. I had a few more hours to enjoy in Barcelona before I headed up north. I decided to hang at a bar/restaurant close to the station. It was literally across the street and I immediately started off on the wrong foot. My bag was laden with clothes and souvenirs so I was pushing maximum density. I was in the way of so many things and I bumped into them all whilst trying to buy some cigs. The owner said, ‘oh senior!’ I hastily made my way for the door but he understood what I was doing. After selecting a table, I soon had a beer and a pack of Lucky Strikes at my table. I wrote several posties in the hour or so I had until the train.

The one thing about Barcelona is that it is by the sea, so a breeze is ever-present. This breeze is helpful to determine your location in the city. I discovered this fact too late after wandering around for several hours. I could never figure out Barcelona as well as I did Madrid, I was constantly lost and back tracked more than once. When the breeze hits you in the face, you are walking south.

Once aboard the train, it started to rain. Luck was on my side, I had made a wise choice.

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I really had two options: stay in Barcelona and head to Andorra or train to Paris. Since it was raining, I feel I made the right choice. It was amazing watching the rain fall from the train. We made several stops and eventually I fell asleep. I awoke just in time to see the border between Spain and France.

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I tell you, if ever I find myself in Spain, I shall head for Barcelona and train it to the east along the coast. I saw amazing towns that were on the cliffs. They were literally right off the water. I saw boats at the ready to head for fish from the sea. This is the way to live, methinks.

Whilst on my journey northwards, I watched the rain and fell asleep. It was so peaceful on the train. I had a neighbor who recognized that I was American. He made conversation about the Lakers and the NBA in general. I tried to talk to him as best I could but I failed. He said he was from Cerbère but he moved to Spain as he felt more Spanish than French. Cerbère was a border town so I can see how one would want to pick sides. We rapped as best we could in our lack of language. I knew just enough Spanish to figure out the gist of what he was saying and he knew just enough English to understand my replies. We had a moment where we looked at each other and knew we were sports fans, basketball fans. He had to leave so he looked at me and grabbed my checks and said, ‘trie bien.’ He knew that this was the one time he would talk to an American as I knew this was my one time talking with a real Spaniard. One of the best train rides I had on this voyage.

I arrived in France around 5 pm. We had about 20 min to pee and other things before the connecting train left for Paris. I ran into a train employee named Boris. He advised me to just wait until everyone checked in before I did. I used this time to change and ended up leaving my doforitrecords shirt in the bathroom at the train station. I was pushing maximum density in my backpack.

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I had to haggle with the French ticket lady. We both didn’t understand each other so we did lots of pointing. It turned out to be way cheap to travel by train so I had to fork over some change. This took about 3 minutes to negotiate as we had a mediator who barely understood either language. Once we knew that I had to have some coins so as to make exact change, I soon had a ticket. Turned out to be around 20€ for the trip. This was for a 6 bunk sleeper. I didn’t realize it at first but I had to open my compartment each time another rider joined which lasted throughout the night. I thought I had it all in my 6 bunk world. We were given dinner which consisted of Twix 2 pack and water. It was enough for this section of the journey. The trains slow progress lulled me to sleep quickly.

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European Vacation trip I Day 4 Madrid to Barcelona, Espana

The day started out writing postys to various people. After checking out I headed to the one place I knew I could get a good meal, why the Museo del Jamon of course. Coke is more expensive than beer in Spain. I first ordered the Serrano then felt it best to order another sandwich as I figured when am I ever going to have another opportunity for such a great lunch? I decided on chorizo and the bartender shouted out my order to the butcher who sliced up a sandwich in no time. It was only after biting into the bocadillo that I noticed they make eggs & bacon, thick cut bacon no less, damn. That would have really started off the day right.

I was about halfway through my bocadillo when suddenly a commotion broke out with the group next to me. There were two men and a lady and all were passed retirement age. One of the guys grasped the others shoulder and I thought he was trying to throw down and get in the other guys face. As it turned out, one of the fellows passed out and was slumping over. The barkeep jumped around the counter and took hold of the situation. By take hold I mean he propped the past out Spaniard and promptly slapped him several times until he came to. I had several possible outcomes and I didn’t think that was one of them. Surely this guy had a mild heart attack or something. After a few moments he was ok enough to light up another smoke and start his day. I hit the door after finishing up my Coke and bocadillo.

The deal with trains is you can get a pass that lets you ride them, but you still have to buy a seat, a reservation. I went up to a couple places and got this all confirmed. I noticed everyone was in two really long lines, but there was a much shorter one. I decided to just risk it and plead ignorant tourist and hopped in the shortest line. Good move as I was right at the front desk and asked for Barcelona ticket and handed the man my pass. It was still 10€ for my ticket which I still don’t really get; I figured I had a free train pass. I headed upstairs and found my terminal.

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The seats are numbered but the train wasn’t really full so I just hopped in a window seat. To my joy and what would turn into a trip staple, a single mother with her infant sat down across from me. They showed a movie and handed out headphones. The movie was in Spanish for some reason, but I was able to pick up on it a bit. You know the worst time to start a foreign language is high school which is when students start in the US. Why aren’t we teaching starting in 1st grade, so that kids grow up without an accent in two languages? In TX hell anywhere really Spanish would be a great language to know. I hear the arguments about how they should integrate and learn English and you definitely can make the argument that you are better off knowing English.  All I’m saying is that most people in the US will have to know Spanish. You can fight it and think that the problem will get solved, that we will really invest in buses to take them back to Mexico as well as building a fence. Really that sounds great and really worth it. People need to be more realistic. The time for a wall and all that was once the borders were established, not hundreds of years after.

I stared out the window deep in thoughts about Spain and how lovely it looked. It seemed to remind me of Oklahoma or west Texas.

 

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It was strange seeing the highways and the few cars on them, the highways seem to be the route for buses and trucks. That seems like a much better idea. I was soon fast asleep.

I arrived in Barcelona and was hit by the cool ocean breeze. I wondered around and found myself a nice bar. It was run by a Chinese guy who spoke Spanish so that was a bit odd but I was able to procure a beer. I stared at a map trying to figure out where the hell I was going. Barcelona made no sense; it was just a random group of streets that changed names depending on where you were. I was never able to figure out which was up and ended up being lost most of the time. It got quite scary there a few times when I walked thinking I was going the right way only to find that wasn’t and had to backtrack.

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After following a pretty hot girl for a few blocks, I finally encountered an internet café. After a few moments I located a hostel chain that seemed to cater to backpackers.

I headed out and still got lost. I also walked the same road up and down several times and no doubt walked a mile out of my way. In all I would say I walked six hours so that could have been 20 miles or more who knows, but as dumb as that was, I did see most of Barcelona. It seemed newer more modern vs. Madrid. Also it appeared that most everything was closed. I’d walk by a building and they were closing up. They have a much healthier work/life relationship going on in Europe. Places close for lunch or after so that they can eat with their families or sleep. Work to live not live to work…

After passing a Spanish jail I was on the right track.

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I had gone most of the day without eating or drinking much other than a beer. I was super thirsty. I had an empty water bottle and noticed a faucet. Two men beat me to it and I didn’t think anything of it until one of them addressed the sink. He washed his hands first then up to his arms so I’m like, ok this isn’t a shower bro. I was wrong, this dude proceeded to stick his head under the water, his scalp scraping the faucet. At this point I was out of there and crushed my water bottle in disgust. It’s like, I get that this is public but I was standing there w an empty bottle, they knew what I was waiting for. Just wave and let me go first. I totally would have but then again I wouldn’t bathe in public like he did, I’d just get water and move on.

I found a small grocery store and checked it out. They resemble a c-store but grocery if that makes sense. Trader Joe’s that sort of place, not a lot of wasted or redundant items. Towards the back they did have bottled water. It was different in that there were 12 packs, but you could take out as many as you wanted. I picked up what I thought was water but it was a no cal no sugar lemon lime carbonated bliss. It was great and I thought it was a soda but it just had flavors. So good.

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I finally found the hostel after a few more blocks and passing several old churches.

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It was getting dark and I’d heard that Barcelona wasn’t as safe as Madrid. I opted for the 4 bunk option so I had a key but shared a room with 3 other people. It was only 30€ so not bad. They had 2 showers and a living room, most importantly a balcony, a few stories up with a great view.

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I opened the door to an Italian watching handball on the telly. I almost walked into the wrong room but I was soon set straight. I picked a bottom bunk and headed for the couch. I was soaked in sweat and needed shower but I knew I had to cool down or just sweat after shower. The Italian left and I found bullfighting on the TV. It was a replay of that Sundays fight. It was amazing and I wished I could have seen it live.

As night closed in I hopped in the shower for a much overdue shower. This was a real hostel and thus no towels you had to rent them, I had to drip dry on the balcony. My new Finnish friends offered me an Estella Damm and we talked on the porch joined by our other roommate a German fraulein named Nadia. We basically talked about where each one of use was from and some of the silly things about the countries. The Finns were from different coasts and they said that there was a different dialect depending if you were eastern or western Finland. They were also tired of old churches. They said they go on holiday quite a bit and old churches are all they really see and so they are bored at all these amazingly crafted buildings. I hope to get that jaded about traveling and/or touring churches. The German complained at how conservative and boring it was to live in Munich. I related that it gets hot enough in Texas for paint to peel. We all seemed amazed to be together on a balcony in Barcelona.

The hostel arranged for everyone to go out if you wanted, but I didn’t. I was so tired and frankly a bit scared. I got totally lost during the day, what may have happened drunk and at night…the world may never know but I hung on the balcony for awhile. I headed down to the computer and TV room to get some addresses and correspondence. I figured that mom and dad were appropriately freaked out and concerned that I was lost or feared dead.

Since the room is shared, anyone can come in at any time even 3 am. So there I was sleeping to the sounds of the city when the lights flicked on and in strode a dude wearing only Speedo undergarments. He had to sleep up on top of my bunk and arrange a few things. I roll over and his crotch is right up in my face. That is just a perfect topper to the evening.

European Vacation Trip I Day 3 Madrid, Espana

Woke up the next morning and checked out. Got directions downtown via train. The receptionist seems to know what I was asking, they probably know they aren’t around anything anyone would want to do. Walked to the train and encounter lots of locals, kids, and women mostly but I did see some guys and it was 10 am on a Tuesday. That happened all the time, I’d be in a place eating and sure enough a table full of guys would show up or already be there, drinking. All hours of the day.

On the train, a guy hopped on with what I thought was a rolling suitcase. Turned out it was a speaker/CD combo thing that he turned on and played trumpet along with, karaoke style. I had to admit, it was nice but I could see how that would get old fast if you had to listen to it daily, unannounced and unasked for. Lots of people had ear buds prob connected to Iphones. That was the standard on trains and walking around even.

I arrived to downtown shortly and located a map. I noticed everyone had them all spread out and walking with them, but I took a moment and noticed that Madrid is really just a grid with a couple major streets in each direction. So if you were lost it would only take you a few blocks before you hit a main road and you could readjust your walking. I found it easy to get around once I realized this.

I was super hungry as I still hadn’t eaten, even much the night before. I found a gyro style place and got a Mediterranean wrap with shaved pork. I came to find out that pork is everywhere in Europe, a lot more so than here.  Also mayo, not just for fries but even the wrap I ordered was drowned in mayo. I hung around the bar and people watched whilst I studied the map. All the hot spots were circled and highlighted so you could find the landmarks. I also noticed that maps and people used train stations as points of directions so they’d say the name of a station and that would get you close enough. Pretty easy eh?

I was very close to the main plaza so that seemed like a good place to start. They have all these leftovers from the grand king days, before mass communication. So they have several huge plazas where the announcements and events were held. I think they still use them for a few formal things and celebrations mostly. The crazy thing is people live there now. They didn’t see the need for a royal family to have a huge palace so they just turned them into apartments…very nice apartments but there you have that. I was able to just walk around from plaza to palace to park pretty easily. I did start to wonder about 3-ish if perhaps finding a hostel would be a good idea. The really cool thing about Europe is there are internet café’s everywhere, I don’t think they hook up too many direct lines into too many homes. Also the way you know you are in an internet café is that they will inevitably be run by an African or Indian, it will smell of some sort of odd spice and there will be 2 or more men vigorously arguing the entire time you are there. Without fail this was my experience, not just Spain, but France Belgium, etc.

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Found a hostel but it didn’t seem right. I ran into what I guessed as homeless Spanish and perhaps a couple of prostitutes. They were conducting business of some sort right in front of my hostel, did they stay there, where they always there? These are questions not to find out at 3 am so I kept walking. Found option 2, right on top of a bank. At least I knew it would be quiet, banks are rarely open. The hostel owner spoke no English so it was conducted in Spanish and I felt I did well. I’m pretty sure I heard some moans and shrieks of ecstasy while we exchanged money. That was killer.

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They have lots of places like the one I stayed at all over Europe. Its basics not much extra and its all spelled out prior to checking. If you want just a bed, you can have that but it may be with several others or you get a single w shared restroom. That was an odd one but I never ran into anyone while I was there. The bathroom was down the hall, separate key. Had a shower and all the normal stuff. Each room had a sink, TV bed, and closet. I opened my windows and took the air in. Not much of a view but hey I had arrived!

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It was only 5-ish so I had a few hours of sunlight left. I decided to locate the train station and scout tomorrow’s trip. I had lucked out and my hostel was on the main road that passed the Madrid train station. I feel that studying that map and walking around subconsciously thinking about it, my mind arrived at a plan, I just had to let myself not think, to completely shut off my thinking and go with what my mind already knew.

That’s what I told myself anyway. If we can find a way to access info, we should be able to recall everything. I look at the brain like a library. Lots of books in the library but if they are organized you can find all sorts of info. Such a setup must be like the brain so instead of locating the info we just cannot remember or say we forgot. I think it’s there but lost, inaccessible or unorganized. Meditation and things can break down some walls, doors to the real brain. We only use like 20% or so of our brain at most, for sure not 100% and one wonders what we are truly capable of doing. Sure I say I’m no good at math or that person says they cannot write. I say, we aren’t able to access and use that info that allows those talents to manifest.

It was a quick walk to the station. I found a cool modern art museum so I stopped to take some photos. I discovered that I also had found my first WiFi hot spot right in the courtyard of this modern art wonder. There were two glass elevators that I was really impressed me. I uploaded a few photos to the Facebook, got directions to train station, national park and headed out.

The Madrid train station was under repair. Everything is the same no matter where you go, an upgrade here, and a new addition there, construction. I noted the walk time and tried to get train times. Oh well, Barcelona isn’t too far away, there had to be hourly or so trains. If not I was right in the heart of downtown right by all sorts of action. Seemed like the trend was Burger King and Kentucky Fried Chicken were the fast food options. I walked on by as I wanted to see the Parque de Real, the big one. Seemed like the trend of central parks or parks in cities was honed to perfection in Europe.

I first found the botanical gardens right by the department of agriculture of course.

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One had to buy tickets so I kept walking, surely all the best stuff isn’t for sale? I turned out to be very right as I came across amazing building and small statues. I also noticed that there were a lot of people napping, alone, women alone sleeping in a park! I knew I was in the right place. I picked up a bottle of water and located an art installation.  Lawn chairs and laundry baskets made up a tower in a huge greenhouse. A few feet away was a small pond with turtles and swans ah swimming. Very pleasant and serene so I took a pause for the cause and watched the water.

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I walked a bit further and wow pow right in the kisser! Turns out this park was actually the old Spanish palace! Huge mansion and yes a lake, I would say it was lake size, surely not a pond, was in front of the palace. Lots of row boaters lined the waters all angling to get just the right spot for the upcoming sunset. I saw several people playfully splashing water on each other. It really seemed like a lot of fun. I spied a water facet and filled up.

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Now I was headed west back towards the hostel. It was dusk and I wanted to be out of the park and well into town before nightfall. I walked through an amazing manicured courtyard I suppose you would call it. Lots of fancy cut trees, flowers and shrubbery naturally brought people to the waters so I must have been at the actual front yard of the palace.

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A walk across the street I arrived at one of several buildings that housed the largest public art in the world. It would take weeks to see it all. Museo del Prado

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I also found an out-of-order church; guess they were remodeling or something.

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I was mighty hungry and all I saw was street food or fast, not interested in either, not for dinner anyways. I will say the street food is not bad but you don’t want to start out with that I think. I passed several jazz clubs I think but there were already lines to get in and eat. Live music while you ate seemed  to be a big part of going out in Madrid. I can totally get behind that. I stopped in and picked up a few souvenirs.

On the walk to Calle de Achoa where I stayed I ran across a real opera house. Standing out front was a dude singing opera for change and he was good!

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All the signs of a real singer, I was impressed and sat to listen and watch the people file in for that evening’s performance. Carmen that ran that night, it probably would have been cool to check out, see how things are done where all this stuff started. If nothing else surely the Spanish have held operas far longer than in the US so a more well run show would be expected.

I got back to the part of town I recognized so I felt better and hungrier. I walked and had the idea to drop my bag off at my room and head out again. I didn’t make it to the room; I saw a yellow sign that read everything I needed to know: Museo del Jamon, the museum of ham! Sign me up sir. I entered and noticed it was heaven. Hanging legs of pork lined the walls, there was a butcher on site cutting up meat for sandwiches to order and a small bar.

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Amstel (full not light) was the beer of choice in this part of town so I got one for 1€. Pretty reasonable and yes small bite sized pieces of ham and bread arrived with your beer. I was super thirsty so I ended up drinking a couple of beers while I figured out the menu.

Bocadillo is what you call a Spanish ham sandwich. The question is what sort of ham or cheese do you want? You can get prosciutto, Serrano, chorizo or just cheese and bread. I think the true secret of a great sandwich is the bread. How can you make it crunchy soft and chewy? Well that’s how it is done at the MdJ and it was great. I recalled from a show that Serrano ham is the best in the world and wouldn’t you know it, they had a bocadillo de Serrano jamon for 2€! Fantastic, beer and ham sandwich it is. I noticed lots of people were cheering and I saw they were watching basketball. Spain vs. Slovakia and these Madridians were all in for Espana! Cheers rang out and laughter enveloped the people as Espana went on to win in OT. I decided this was way better than watching TV so I elected to keep beering and cheering so long as the game was on. It was nearly midnight and quite a day.

European Vacation trip I Day 2 London to Madrid

I arrived initially to London, specifically Heathrow airport before 7 am. Ah, felt good to stand up and actually walk around, stretch everything out a bit. I again had to go through security cause so much can happen on an airplane, I mean really? I found a pub and ordered a Guinness. It was quite a shock, but I’m pretty sure a pint in Heathrow was cheaper than at Molly McGuire’s in Dallas. The thing is in Heathrow they use the pound, not euro so it’s another conversion to dollar$. Still though that Guinness was pretty sweet and worth it after that long, painful flight. Heathrow is a huge airport and I can see how people get lost or frantic running changing planes. I had to first walk around this huge lobby like area, the duty-free shops, then walk about a quarter-mile to our gate. The gate turned out to just be a shuttle which took us through back ways and finally an airplane. It was the old style, where the ladder is brought out by the airlines.

Madrid was great. I arrived around 5 so dinner time was in order. I sadly wasn’t around anything other than hotel restaurants and I wanted to get out and know the cities and people. I wanted to eat and have a beer in a local pub or cantina. The area around the hotel was actually populated which gave me hope. I must have been off the main drag as I walked a good 20 minutes around the streets before finally seeing a place.

What made this place cool is they had locals smoking and watching American TV, cartoons dubbed in Spanish. American Dad, or papi they called it was on. Everyone was laughing, the workers had beer, and the couples had wine. Most everyone smoked which was new; for sure more people smoke in Europe than US it seems. They didn’t seem to have ashtrays but they did have small cans around the bar. That’s where you tossed trash, napkins and things, ashes seemed to go on the floor or occasionally the direction of the cans. I got a Cruzcampo and some sausages. They seem to include a snack with anything you buy so you a night out is pretty cheap. Beer is 2€ so that isn’t bad.

I first tried chorizo in small Vienna wiener style. They were pretty good and you got a small plate of them. After a few beers I think perhaps I should tip this guy or order more food. I elect to the tried and true, just point; ‘Quanto?’ It was a Spanish style eggroll thing with cabbage and pork. Pretty good, but it was room temp so that was a bit strange. Good though. Asking for another beer one says, ‘otra,’ again. That is pretty simple, clever.

After a few I realized it would soon be dark and there were a few unknowns about my return trip. I recalled a small grocery store so I decided to stop in and pick up a bev. I walk in and head to the back. I get up to the front, a few things when this lady screams, “Ay es caballero!’ turns out the place is closed and they have all the money from registers and counting it down. I was escorted out of the building. A close call, my first night in town and I could’ve had the policia called on me.

Made it back to my place, tried to use internet, but it was always a pay type situation. I could go to a couple free places only for short periods of time. I had to negotiate the lights in the rooms. They do it where you must have a card to turn the light on. I guess that’s how you monitor electricity and people sneaking into rooms. It didn’t click and I had to do a few things in the dark which is always a good change of pace. The elevators, well everything as it turns out, but the first thing I notice that is different all over Europe is how much smaller or more compact things have to be. I’ll bet you can only fit 4 people in the elevator at this place. Europeans have a much better grasp on maximizing space and really cutting down on unnecessary items.  For instance I saw standard restaurant facilities as each own room, but the doors opened and the sink was in the middle. Not a sink in each room, it was shared, cold water only. It’s like they said, you know what, we don’t need hot water to wash our hands, just regular room temp water will do. I just wonder how much work/time/$ they save when they build. Actually they don’t build new things, they have to remodel so perhaps it was all due to the available space.

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