Day 20: Belgium and Cologne

Yesterday, I went to the military base which is where my G. Uncle Tom and Aunt Stella go shopping. I bought two books, “What the Dog Saw” by Malcolm Gladwell and “Best of Europe: 2010” by Rick Steves. I actually have the book by Rick Steves at home, but didn’t bring it because I didn’t think I would need it since I already had two other guide books. The guidebooks I bought “Let’s Go Europe 2010” and “Rough Guide Europe 2010” were both good, but they just provide a list of things to do, with a few recommendations. His book is more in depth, providing detailed city maps with self-guided tours and more explanation into the history and culture. After the military base, I took a train back to Brussels. It was overcast when I went earlier in the week and the sun made everything look better. I couldn’t get tickets to the soccer match but the fan were out in full force. There were a bunch of Mexicans in the Grand Plaza who were singing Mexican songs and chants for about 2 hours. Ha, Michael Scott: “Is there a word besides Mexican that you like to be called, maybe something less offensive?” They were all wearing jerseys and had Mexican flags that they would wave every once in awhile. I spent time just wondering around, taking pictures, and eating waffles and beer. I caught the 6:45pm train back to Jurbise, had my last dinner with G. Uncle Tom and Aunt Stella, and then went to sleep.

I woke up around 8:30am this morning, packed my things, and left to take the 10:17am train from Jurbise to Brussels, and then a 12:25pm train from Brussels to Cologne, Germany. I had a great time in Belgium; I got to see some important World War I sites (that I wouldn’t be able to see without a car) and saw the main cities. It was really nice to have some family company for a couple of days.

My train from Jurbise to Brussels left on time, but was slow on the tracks and would completely stop in some cases. They made an announcement but it was in French so I had no idea what they said. No one seemed to be upset so I don’t think it was that important. I asked a woman next to me if she spoke English, which she didn’t, so she tried to explain what the problem was using hand gestures. Funny as it was, I had no idea what she was trying to explain. I got to the Brussels-Midi train station around 11:20, (15 minutes late) and then ate a packed lunch that Aunt Stella and G. Uncle Tom fixed me. Thanks!

I thought my train platform was closer than it really was and I almost missed my connecting train to Cologne; the doors closed about two minutes after I got on. I grabbed a seat on the first car I found and then started planning what I was going to do in Cologne. About ten minutes into the train ride, I noticed there was a German family spread out in the seats around me. The mother was sitting diagonally from me, two kids (a boy, age 6, and girl, age 10), and the oldest daughter was sitting by herself to the right of me (around age 14). She kept catching glances at me while I wrote in my journal or took pictures outside so I decided to take advantage of the opportunity and practice my German.

I moved over to the empty seat next to her and asked if she spoke English. I couldn’t tell what she said in reply, but I found out it meant, ‘very little’. It’s funny – when I ask anyone if they speak English, they’ll always say ‘a little’ but I can guarantee their English is 100x better than my French or German.

I got out my guide book and started going through the phrases in German (Yes, No, Numbers 1-10, ‘I would like a beer’, etc.). Some of them I was pronouncing right, but I butchered a lot of them. I would say one, she would correct me, and then I would try it again. She had her iPod sitting next to her, so I asked what she was listening to and I noticed she had Michael Jackson, Casada, and even the audio book ‘Twilight’ in German. Good to know the vampire obsession has crossed the Atlantic.

I then got out some paper, and drew a # to see if she knew how to play tic-tac-toe. She did, but didn’t have the best strategy so I won most of the time. After a couple games, I took my hand out and did the hand gesture for Rock, Paper, Scissors, but she didn’t know how to play. Instead, I made a Dots board. For those who don’t know, Dots is a game where you draw a bunch of dots in an array on a piece of paper, like 5×5 or 6×6, and then take turns connecting the dots, either horizontally or vertically. Once someone makes a square, they put their first initial inside and get to go again. The person with the most boxes at the end is the winner.

But she didn’t know how to play, and didn’t speak English well enough for me to explain it to her. So I had to teach her how to play Dots without talking. After a couple minutes, she figured it out and we played a couple games. She asked me where I was from in broken English, so I drew a picture of the United States and put a star where Tampa would be in Florida. She didn’t know what Florida was, so I drew the Mickey Mouse head, and then put an arrow to Orlando which she recognized. I found out that her name was Sina (pronounced Zena, like the warrior princess) and she was from Cologne. She asked where I was going, so I underlined some places on a map of Germany in my guidebook and drew lines from one to the other.

As we were pulling up to the train station, the ~4 year old boy got out of his chair and started to talk excitedly in German. I noticed that it was because he saw the top of the Dom Cathedral, the icon of the city, meaning that he was almost home. The train finally stopped, I said goodbye to the Sina and the German family, put my stuff in my backpack, and then left the train station.

I found my hostel about 15 minutes later, due to becoming a little lost. It turns out that my hostel is right next to the train station; so close, in fact, that I can hear the announcements right now as I type this. If I wanted to, I couple probably throw a rock and hit it, its so close. I dropped my stuff off in my room (the nicest one I’ve had yet) and then started exploring Cologne. The cathedral is absolutely huge. It’s so big that I wouldn’t be able to fit it all in one picture unless I was a couple blocks away.

I also went into a chocolate museum, Schokoladen Museum. It was sponsored by Lindt Chocolate, and was MUCH better than the chocolate museum I went to in Brussels. At the tickets counter, they had a mini chocolate bar waiting for you to sample. The museum covered the history of chocolate to the manufacturing process, to the cultural significance. Inside, they had a mini-chocolate factory where they would melt the cocoa beans, stir them, place them in molds, cool them, and then package them. It turns out the little chocolate bar I had when I bought my ticket was made on site. It was a really well done museum and was well worth the 5 Euros.

After the museum, I grabbed some food. I grabbed a HUGE pretzel for 1 Euro and then two jelly filled doughnuts for another Euro. For the street stands, Germany is the cheapest I’ve come across so far. I walked through the commercial district and then on a bridge over the Rhine river. Remember when I said the French would place a lock on a bridge and then throw the key in the water to show their love for each other? Well the French have nothing on the Germans. I walked across this bridge and there were probably thousands of locks with couples’s names on it. About half way through the bridge, a couple approached me, and asked me to take some pictures of them while they attached the lock to the fence and as they threw their key in the water. I took about 20 pictures of them and they seemed happy with the results.

I walked through the city as the sun was setting and tried to take some pictures but it was too dark and I needed a tripod. I’ll probably buy one tomorrow along with a polarizing lens to make my pictures have more color.