Friday, November 25, 2011

European Travels of an American Expatriate

Here is the entry of my (nonexistent) diary. I must say, I have never had such an urge to write down my experiences. That must mean I've finally had some.

"Woke up at 0530 today, Thursday, Thanksgiving, I guess in some places. I had had a scare at 0115 when I realized I didn’t have my Go Pass for the B-train in Belgium. I had left it in studio. Fortunately, studio is open until 0200. Anyway, I got ready to go, finished packing, tidied the room a bit and headed out. Reaching the bus stop at precisely 0600, I hopped aboard the 64 a Termini. I planned to be there by 0630 and reached the station at 0609. Who knew that it was a nine minute ride? Once at Termini, I looked around for the shuttle stop so that I could catch the 0630 shuttle to Ciampino Airport. I didn’t see it. Instead I went over to the Self Help Ticket Kiosk to see if I could get my ticket (it was supposed to be 8 Euro). I discovered once there that I could get a train ticket to Ciampino for 1.30. Better deal? I thought so. I started to buy the ticket when a man stopped me. Although my Italian isn’t stellar, he made himself understood. I needed to switch machines because the machine I was using only took cards. I duly switched to the Kash Kiosk. 
At 0632, the treno urbano took off for Ciampino. Unfortunately, the joke was one me. It took me not to the Airport, but rather to the center of the small city of Ciampino outside of which is the airport itself. Thinking that my day really couldn’t afford to start like this, I started walking, following the signs to the Airport (I thought it might be close since I saw an airport from the train). I didn’t want to take the expensive shuttle if I didn’t have to. As it turned out, it wasn’t close. What was close was a military airbase. Haha. I was about to give up when I saw a sign for an airport parking lot. I thought “This must be it.” I crossed the busy street, threading my way through numerous insane Italian drivers and entered what looked like a Auto Salvage Lot. From the 50s. And not used since then. As I walked past the  building, I noticed a man inside eating a cornetto. Lucky. I had forgotten my oranges at the hotel. He called to me and I asked him, “Dove il ingresso d’aerport?” He sort of laughed. He gave me directions and I thanked him. He then said “You shouldn’t walk, it’s 2 kilometers. I’ll be taking the shuttle there in about 5-10 minutes.” He told me to wait in the shuttle. While I was there, another Shuttleist arrived and they had a typical Italian exchange of buffeting blows and wisecracks while I watched from the shuttle. Then a family pulled up in a car, Father, Mother, Daughter. On the way to the airport, I believe they talked about me in Italian. Not that I would know. As I said, my Italian isn’t in any way stellar. 
I reached the Airport at around 0730. My flight was scheduled for 0855, so I thought “I don’t have a minute to spare. I am a foreigner. They will probably frisk me.” Fortunately, I had not brought anything that would turn the detectors on, so I was safe. One thing I will never understand is why people from places other than the US in positions of some authority (such as female airline personnel) will say “bye-bye” when you are done with your exchange. Is it that we seem like babies trying to use the Italian system? Is it because I’m just abnormally baby-like? To I exude lack of confidence? Well as a matter of fact, as I later learned, yes. When I reached the correct gate (Gate 12, to be exact), I purchased a prosciutto pizza. And Gum. I started on the pizza and discovered that whoever had made it didn’t know what “prosciutto” means nor “pizza” and we were in Italy! The prosciutto refused to go down well and the crust was probably 76% salt. With salt sprinkled on top. In short, it was awful. I got some water to wash it down. When the time came to board, a young man asked me “Charleroi?” and at that moment I realized that I was American. I had never said it out loud. It threw me off. Oh. French? Oh snap. I responded “Charleroi? Si.” In perfect Franc-Italian. It made me feel a little better. Then, the woman next to me in line asked me in english, “Do you know what the weather will be in Brussels?” I responded “I have no idea.” I should have said “Non lo so” which is the correct Italian response. It made me feel worse again. She had forgotten her umbrella. Oh dear. “Well,” I thought. “It can’t be MUCH different from here, right?” Well, wrong, but I didn’t know that yet. 
We boarded the plane, and it took off around on time. I couldn’t tell you precisely when because like a good temporary citizen of the EU, I turned off my cell phone before take off. Obviously the flight was uneventful. I slept for part of it. However, we touched down in time. I know this because they played a fanfare and announced how great Ryanair was for having the most on time flights in Europe. Lol. Next on the agenda was getting to Charleroi Sud station to catch the train to Brugge. I had considered walking at one time (it was only 1.5 hours by foot, no?), but I abandoned that idea. I decided instead to take the bus, or whatever took me there in the cheapest quickest fashion. I asked a French speaking airline employee. Oh. French. Oh snap. This was the second time I was realizing that maybe this was a poor decision to go to a foreign country all by myself where they spoke not one but two languages that I have little to no experience in. I understand some French, but nothing substantial and I most certainly can’t really speak it. And there’s a difference between understanding a language in theory and understanding it in practice. Fortunately, I was saved by the fact that this airline employee spoke English. He directed me to the bus to Charleroi station. I walked toward is and as I tried to enter, the driver motioned me forward. I thought “Oh, he means ‘take the bus in front of me.’” Well, he didn’t. I asked the driver of the bus in front of him “A Charleroi Sud?” In perfect French. He motioned me forward. I saw that the original bus had pulled up the bus stop. Ok, so he was just moving. I got ready to hand over my arm and maybe my leg to pay for the bus, but as it turned out, it was only 3 Euro. 
As we drove through the city of Charleroi (an outer suburb of Brussels, I guess? They at least share an airport), I realized why I preferred the North of Europe to the South. I would call Charleroi the “Manchester of Belgium” but since I have never been to Manchester and also to no other cities in Belgium, that’s stupid. I mean, I will be flying into Manchester for Christmas break, so maybe I can compare them then. Anyway, it looked like a dirty industrial town with a lot of character and some great buildings. And urban design. We reached the station and I alighted. Having reached the station at 1145, I knew I had 1.33 hours until I had to be back at the station for my 1307 train to Brussels. So, to kill time, I thought I might look for a 1200 Mass in town. The thing about European cities is that it’s easy to find a church because there are a lot of them and because they were built to be noticed. Good thing too. I arrived at a corner, looked to my right and say a Greek temple front. 
What?
Yes, a Greek temple front. But it was really the Church of St. Antoine. I looked at the schedule on the door and saw that I had missed the Mass. It had been 0800. I stopped in to pray a bit and then continued in my search for a church. I encountered two more before I gave up. One was a locked chapel which looked more or less like a row house except it had a cross on top. The other was a huge French neo-baroque, cement, neo-Byzantine, neo-pagan temple of a church. It was the biggest church in town with a huge dome. I wonder what happened. After being highly disappointed by the Mass schedules in the nearby churches, I looked at my phone and saw that it was 1220. I needed food before I got back to the train. I hate getting food in strange cities. I have no idea what the prices are like and what’s good. I decided to head back toward the train station so if my fast food wasn’t fast enough, at least I’d be by the train. I turned down a street looking for restaurants and found one. It had rotisserie chicken and stuff. But since it was all in a language I didn’t know, I ordered a hamburger. Ok, so I sort of ordered a hamburger. I uttered “Hamburger” and the lady there said something incomprehensible in French. Oh. French. Oh snap. Third time’s the charm, eh? Anyway, I eventually got my food after a lot of confusing dialogue-that-was-more-like-her-saying-something-and-me-awkwardly-getting-up-and-pointing. I paid and tried to apologize for my awkwardness, but just ended up saying “I’m an american studying in Italian” in Franc-Italian. I mean how is one to respond to just a statement like that? Well, she responded “Good.” Awkward?
I made the train. I thought I wouldn’t. As I wound my way back through Charleroi, I realized that I needed to come back and spend more time here. It wasn’t amazing, but it wasn’t Rome. I hadn’t, of course, gotten to Brugges yet. So, yeah. Then I realized something else. I didn’t know whether I had forgotten my train ticket on the bus when I got it out to check on the directions. I semi-sort-of-panicked and then gave up because there wasn’t anything I could do and I had a train to catch. As I crossed the bridge to the Station, I checked my backpack and the ticket was safe. Let me just interject here. Why do I have to pay 40 Euro cents to use the restroom? I mean, it’s not 1.50 like it was in Venice, but come on! So I actually made it to the train on time and we took off. I had to switch trains in Brussels and so I was so close to freedom. So close. And then I got there and I realized that I wasn’t quite positive which train I was supposed to take and how long I would have to wait. I made a guess, and got on a train. It was heading toward Brugges. As I got off the train in Brugges, I realized that yes, I had taken 2 buses, 3 trains, 1 shuttle, and 1 plane over about 8.5 hours to get from one end of the continent of Europe to the other. And I hadn’t missed any of them. And I hadn’t died. Point Nate.
Or something."

17 comments:

thisjourneyofmylife said...

But you made it! All's well that ends well.
And contrary to your predictions, the Belgian economy didn't crash while you were here. Amazingly, somehow you managed to influence our political system though. After fivehundred thirty and who's counting anyway days, we finally have a governement. How did that happen?!

N.W. Thomas said...

As I said, it was wonderful being in Belgium and I'm definitely recommending it to anyone who comes to Europe.

Unfortunately, the way home was much more boring.

Actually, my brother sent me a link while I was there showing that the S&P rating was dropped for Belgium while I was there. On the other hand, that really doesn't seem to mean much.

Re: The Government, glad to hear. Yes, I do have that effect on nations.

thisjourneyofmylife said...

Thanks. But did you really have to make Di Rupo prime minister?

N.W. Thomas said...

Do you think I have much time for the Lowland countries? Let them eat cake, or so the saying goes.

thisjourneyofmylife said...

Oh, I see where this is going! You'd rather appoint an Italian socialist who doesn't speak Dutch than a Belgian democrat who is bilingual.
Tss.
We might be the Low Countries, but we have a high culture!

N.W. Thomas said...

Well, I am in Italy...then again, this is the EU, so why not let an Italian run Belgium? After all, Brugges has received crap from Italy before, right?

But if I had known that he was a socialist, I would have reconsidered.

thisjourneyofmylife said...

Is that an apology in disguise?

N.W. Thomas said...

If it is, then you have to wade through slight insult, political humor and artistic snobbery to get to it. ;)

Well, I'll be sure not to appoint a Labor party PM in England when I go. I'm sorry about Belgium but since I'm no longer there, I can't do anything else. It's the downside of trying to rule the whole world.

thisjourneyofmylife said...

You can only rule a country as long as you're in it? How disappointing. I guess I'll just have to lay my fate in the hands of the Italian socialist with the stupid bowtie ...

N.W. Thomas said...

It is my personal philosophy that the farther you are from a problem, the worse you will be at fixing it. By this logic, the Italian Socialist would actually be more qualified at this point to help out Belgium.

Also: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TpYIKF1wuyE

N.W. Thomas said...

For the betterment of your soul, don't watch past the first section about the EU.

thisjourneyofmylife said...

YouTube is blocked at my work, so I can't watch it. Yes, I am checking your blog while working and no, I can't access internet somewher else. Sorry. I think.

thisjourneyofmylife said...

Watched it at my mother's house. Hilarious!

N.W. Thomas said...

So if you didn't know where I got my anti-EU sentiments... ;)

But in all seriousness, Mr. Farage is very funny and even if he goes overboard, he has some points.

thisjourneyofmylife said...

Hmm, well, generally, when people start throwing in arguments ad hominem, I get the feeling they've ran out of convincing arguments. But yes, he does have some points.

N.W. Thomas said...

That's true. Ad hominems are generally bad form. Maybe Farage was educated as a lawyer. Their whole point is to create the impression that the people they are talking to are not to be trusted. In that case it's not called "ad hominem" but "destroying the credibility of the witness." I believe that's what Farage was trying to do.

But you know, I can't really complain about Belgium now that I've been there. And it's no longer a "non-country".

thisjourneyofmylife said...

According to Wikipedia he was a broker. :-)
And Belgium surely isn't a non-country!