Belgium

Beer wall

Just a fraction of the Belgian beers and their respective glasses.

Belgium. Home of beer, waffles, beer, chocolate, beer, fries, and beer. Did I mention Flemish? Sorry, beer, I meant, did I mention beer? There’s a bar in Brussels that has over 3,000 beers. And most beers have their own glass with its own little imperfection that’s supposed to best bring out the flavor. Sometimes the difference between one glass and another is just the name on it, but that’s still a remarkable commitment to something I would just as soon drink straight from the bottle. There’s a “lambic” beer in Brussels that is made via “spontaneous fermentation” and the bacteria you can only find floating in the Brussels air. It tasted like vomit but, you know… when in Rome.

Manneken Pis

The illustrious Manneken Pis.

The mascot of Brussels is an utterly unimpressive, 24 inch tall statute of a little boy taking a piss: Manneken Pis. The whole lack of grandeur is kind of the point. There are a number of cute stories as to the statue’s significance: a child prince who rallied his troops by peeing on the enemy; the promise to build a monument showing whatever a noble’s son was doing when they found the lost boy… the truth is more likely that statues like this were used to show poor people where they could sell urine to leather tanners. What makes this one special is that it has stood for hundreds of years, through bombings and occupations and rebuilding as a cheeky sign of the people’s indomitable spirit.

View of Bruges from the Belfry

The view from the iconic Belfry in Bruges.

Bruges, every bit the fairy tale place it’s supposed to be, supposedly has a law that requires at least 58 swans to live inside the “city center” at all times. Not for tourist reasons, but because a former King cursed Bruges as retaliation for killing 58 of soldiers, including his favorite, Pieter Lanchals (“long neck”). Less than 58 swans and the canal water would rise and drown the city. I couldn’t find any evidence of such a law existing (other than this legend of Pieter Lanchals’ death) so be wary of the information you get from free walking tours. I guess they’re a bit like airport restaurants: they can feed you crap and never see you again.

As a side note: the drinking age in Belgium is an ancient 16 years old. Just food for thought if, out of sympathy for a girl whose bike was stolen, you buy her a 1€ beer and discover she’s 17 when she clearly looks at least 21. It happened… to a friend of mine. Just food for thought. Food for thought.

Another side note: French fries are not French. They are Belgian. They are Belgian fries. American soldiers (and British… they were ignorant too) in World War II were served the now-famous fried potato slices and, hearing French, assumed they were in France. Proper Belgian fries are fried once and then a second time once the customer orders. For those taking notes, North of Brussels is the region known as Flanders where Dutch and Flemish is mostly spoken. In Brussels and the region south of it–Wallonia–you are more likely to hear French and the occasional German. And nearly everyone speaks at least rudimentary English. There are a bunch of people walking around here speaking at least English, Dutch, and French like it’s no big deal and I can barely speak English.

A third, more personal side note: As a stunning example of my boundless intelligence, I find that whenever I’m confronted with a French-speaker who doesn’t understand English my instinct is to speak slowly and with a French accent. I’m still speaking English… just… with a French accent. Because that’s how you cross the language barrier. With stupidity. I have thankfully stopped myself before the idea reaches my lips but it’s still my instinct every, single, time. Then I angrily storm off asking myself what the hell is wrong with me. That’s me: showing the world how great American travelers are one person at a time.

Antwerp train station

Bonus: 30 minutes in Antwerp. Voted most beautiful train station in the world (and apparently built with the blood of the Congolese people! Yay!)

Seven days in Reykjavík

Icelandair offers a “free stopover” of up to seven days in Iceland. Instead of paying cumulatively more for a flight from New York to Reykjavík and another from Reykjavík to Glasgow, I paid for one flight with the longest, best layover of my life (sorry Chicago).

Downtown Reykjavík

Downtown Reykjavík

The downside: I’m doing it in the dead of winter. Iceland. Land of ice. In winter. The upside? Most people are more intelligent than I am and travel during the summer (when the population of the island practically doubles), sparing me the headache of a horde of touristy goons. Another upside? Iceland is freaking beautiful in the winter. With only 4.5 hours of daylight in January it’s one of the best times to see a little thing called THE NORTHERN LIGHTS.

Iceland has seen an uptick in tourism thanks to two weird events: the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull (say it with me now, A-yah-fyah-tla-yo-cutl) which put the little country on TV screens across the world, and the 2008 financial crash, which sunk the value of the Icelandic króna and made traveling more affordable.

“Affordable” is just relative, though. I asked the hostel receptionist where a cheap place to eat is and he literally laughed at me. Even though the US dollar is about 130 króna, the cheapest beer you’ll find is 1000kr (almost $8)… and that’s for Viking… the Bud Light of Scandinavia. Despite trying to keep costs down by cooking for myself in the hostel kitchen I did try mink whale, which was tender and salty and I happily devoured the remaining steak my friend chose not to finish. I didn’t get a chance to try any puffin meat, meaning the cutest animal I’ve eaten too date is still rabbit. Next time…

Getting a little ice climbing in on Sólheimajökull

Getting a little ice climbing in on Sólheimajökull

Iceland’s culture is pretty interesting, notably because they have had little immigration since the 9th century when Norwegian Vikings came ashore. It means the language of the roughly 325,000 residents remains remarkably similar to those who first spoke the tongue. Imagine us speaking in Old English. It also means there isn’t a whole lot of diversity in the most scarcely populated country in Europe. Single Icelanders have a phone app that taps into the country’s genetics archive and warns the user if he or she is grinding a little too close to a relative on the dance floor (which, by the way, stays open until at least 4:30; people are literally starting their nights when–in LA–I’m used to finishing mine). It looks a little desperate to whip out the app at the bar, so many will follow through with the trist and do their research the following morning (or, you know, technically… later that day) to decide if a second encounter is a wise decision. #whitepeopleproblems

The weather can change from beautiful and sunny to a blizzard in the blink of an eye, and vice versa. Their saying goes: “If you don’t like the weather in Iceland, wait five minutes.” Thanks to a decent forecast I completed two bucket list items: spotted the Northern Lights and hiked the Sólheimajökull glacier. The Northern Lights are self explanatory so let me just say the glacier was unreal.

Hiking down Sólheimajökull as the sun sets around 3:30pm.

Hiking down Sólheimajökull as the sun sets around 3:30pm.

Our guide, Thor (yeah… Thor), led with his moulin-finding stick. Moulins are holes in the ice from which you do not return and naturally, they’re all covered by beautiful fluffy snow. Our instructions were to snake directly behind him, single file, no exceptions. Everyone once in a while I’d hear the low, bassy, snap of ice cracking beneath my feet. Oh, by the way, Thor says, “the volcano near hear is about 16 years overdue for an eruption… we could get as little as two hours warning before it blows”. Awesome. Out of about 130 days of travel, that was just day six.