Oh joy and happy wonderfulness…

…I have found a Bagel Cafe.

First bagel in four months! And they have free WiFi. And coffee to die for. It is like it’s my birthday, Christmas, a romantic first date, and a Take That concert where Mark actually jumps off the stage to hold my hand and sing “Babe” to me, all rolled into one. I am tempted to cry with sheer delight, but I think I’ll just come back for lunch tomorrow.

In other news, I was on a boat tour of the famous Rotterdam harbours, I’m currently staying with a group of people from three different countries, I had sushi with a complete stranger, sitting in a park and using chopsticks as if I was brought up in Japan (at last! My lack of basic coordination has been a lifelong problem as far as chopsticks go), I visited the very funky Fotomuseum, and I’ve befriended several backpackers who are, like, wayyyyy cooler than me, dude, but they don’t seem to have noticed that yet.

Rotterdam rocks!

Things that go creak/crash/snore in the night

Snore! Snore! Snore!

I stare sleeplessly at the bunk above my head. I have ended up in a hostel in Rotterdam, as you do on the average Thursday night, and it is a funky little place. Very basic, but not a mouse in sight, and I’ve had fun hanging out with cool traveller dudes from all over the world in the very studenty bar. Sleep, however, is proving to be something of a challenge in a dorm containing dozens of beds.

If it was just the snoring, it might be easier to get used to it, the way you can eventually adjust to the overly loud ticking of a clock that’s been keeping you awake. However, in this sort of environment, all sorts of factors come into play. Like people rolling in at regular intervals, just back from a night out.

Crash! Bang! Clatter!

Snore! Snore! Snore!

Then you’ve got the mattresses, which are plastic-covered things that squeak and creak and groan every time someone as much as twitches in her sleep. When the girl above me turns over, it sounds like the building is in the process of crashing down around my ears.

Creak! Squeak! Groan!

Crash! Bang! Clatter!

Snore! Snore! Snore!

I sigh softly to myself and cuddle closer to Eeyore, who seems unaffected by the Armageddonesque noise level in the room. I close my eyes and try to imagine I’m completely alone. I manage to enter a state that could be described as a light doze, but am disturbed by a man stealthily entering the girls only dorm – my bed is right beside the door, so I watch as he creeps past and appears to be inspecting the sleeping figures in the bunks. In my tired state, I can do no more than wonder what he’s doing, and then I forget about him until morning, when I awake to find the place in uproar. Everyone’s babbling about a man, an attack. There are police. They want to talk to anyone who saw anything suspicious, and I find myself being interviewed and identifying the shady-looking guy from the dorm. He is taken away, shouting that he is innocent, and a feeling of Atonement-like panic washes over me as self-doubt creeps in and accuses me of pointing the finger at the wrong person.

Creak! Squeak! Groan!

As the girl above me turns over again and the mattress resumes its earthquake impressions, I wake up with a jump and realise that that last bit was just one of those very “real” dreams. Dazed and confused, I continue my sleepless journey towards morning.

I am desperately in need of a good night’s sleep tonight, you know.

Where the people are pickles for sure

This could be Rotterdam, or anywhere. But I’m pretty sure it’s Rotterdam.

I was amazed at how hassle-free my journey here was. Perhaps I’m actually getting the hang of this travel thing! The train journeys were cheap and fast, I managed to get some work done on the train, I negotiated changes and finding of ticket offices with no difficulties, and getting rid of that monstrous backpack was the best decision I’ve ever made, as it’s so much more enjoyable to be able to take in everything that’s going on around me without feeling like I’m dying under the weight of all my worldly possessions.

There was a small hitch when I arrived at Blaak Station to discover that the phone number I had for my host was incorrect. Thinking the problem was with my phone, I hunted for a payphone and tried that, but no. Finally, feeling a little lost, I started approaching random people on the street and showing them the scrap of paper on which I’d scribbled the name of the street I needed to find. Oh, the joy – everyone I spoke to spoke excellent English. They did not, however, know where the street was. One very lovely girl stayed by my side and looked for people who “looked local”, flagging them down and asking them for directions in Dutch, and then guiding me part of the way. I used to panic horribly at things like this, but now it’s just part of the travelling experience. Local people wherever you go are always eager to help. Excuse me for going a bit philosophical, here, but you’re never really alone, are you? Deep down, we’re all the same, and we all need each other. So even if it’s just taking two minutes to make a lost stranger on the street feel safe and reassured, you’re doing your bit for, erm, humanity. Yes. End of musing.

Exhausted, I planned on an early night, and instead ended up at a funky modern apartment, chatting with two Palestinians and a Dutch guy, smoking a water pipe, and not getting home until 2am. You smoke the water pipe, right? asked my host casually as we left to visit his friends. He sounded like he was asking if I drink coffee, or put shoes on before going outside. Erm… no… I said dubiously. Is that like a bong?

It’s not drugs, as it turns out, it’s natural tobacco that comes in various flavours, like apple, mint, lemon… I’d seen people sitting on cafe terraces smoking them when I was in Tallinn, and been fascinated by the practice. It seems to be a social thing – it’s not bad for you like smoking regular cigarettes (actually tastes really healthy and pleasant), doesn’t have the adverse effects of drink or drugs, and actually makes your clothes smell clean and fragrant rather than stinky and stale. We sat around the table, sharing a bottle of wine, chatting, and passing the pipe around in the same manner as you’d pass around a joint, not that I’ve ever done that… much. It was a very different cultural experience for me!

Sometimes – and with no decrease in frequency – I look around and have a delirious, detached moment where I see myself climbing the Eiffel Tower, walking through Tallinn Old Town, drinking champagne and diving into a pool at midnight at a party in Belgium, exploring traboules in Lyon, smoking a water pipe with really cool, fun strangers in an apartment in Rotterdam, buying a waffle at a cart in Brussels, watching the sun set at Waterloo, or weaving my way through a busy train station while announcements in unfamilar languages boom out all around me. And I think to myself… Wow. Am I really here, doing this?! I don’t think that’ll ever stop. It’s like living in a permanent dream.

Hopefully I can just continue to sleepwalk for quite a long time to come…

Tot ziens, België!

The house owners have returned, and my hideaway in the Belgian countryside is once again full of noise and life. It was quite nice to be greeted with the same hugs and kisses as the friends of the family – they’re very warm and affectionate with their greetings over here. I’m now sitting nervously in a corner of the living room as chaos happens all around me, just waiting for someone to exclaim in horror about how sad and droopy the house plants look, and feeling a bit out of place. Yep… it’s time to move on.

Belgium has been a nice experience. Mostly, it’s been seemingly endless days of tranquility, peace to do my work, long walks in the forest, and more mosquito bites than can possibly be my fair share. The occasional lunch in the village with a strong, rich Belgian (coffee, that is), excursions to a few cities, trips to the local market, and a couple of nice leisurely dinners and drinks with new friends. The wildlife is varied: I have witnessed the awesome power of mosquitos, been stung by two bees, patted a deer that came right up to the garden fence from the forest, been attacked by large, armoured bugs, had my finger almost severed by a parrot, and most recently discovered a family of moles – in addition to the bees – under the lawn.

I’ve seen a real Waterloo sunset, taken in the carpet of flowers at Brussels’ Grand Place, observed a Manneken Pis parade, eaten Belgian chips whilst walking down sunny cobbled side streets, driven on the right hand side of the road, been to a pool party with an international flavour, and learned to listen out for complicated train announcements and then scream for help. Unfortunately, my attempts to learn the language have been futile. I can now make the throaty sound that is required for the letter “r”, although I suspect that I sound like I’m choking when I do so, and I must leave my efforts at that.

Next stop: Rotterdam. If you have any suggestions about where to go, what to do, things to see, leave a comment – otherwise, be prepared for me to miss all the apparently obvious things and report back with stories about small, peeing statues again. Your choice.

Personally, I like stories of the small, peeing statues variety…

No. of mice required in room: please check box

So, finding somewhere to stay in Amsterdam when you’re as disorganised as me is great fun!

My head really hurts. I’ve successfully arranged to couchsurf for a week in Rotterdam (I wonder if you can train to do this in the Olympics?), and in Utrecht for a couple of days – I think. In between those, however, is the Amsterdam Homelessness Experience. Turns out that Amsterdam is actually quite a popular place for backpackers, wouldye believe, and there is no room at the inn. Or at an apartment, a house, or anything of the sort. Onwards I went, using my now expert Google skills to combine words such as “hostels”, “cheap” and “Amsterdam”, and have now successfully spent a large whack of the money I’ve spent the last week earning, just for the joy of sharing a room with a dozen smelly drunk people and a couple of mice. Still. I’m sure the weed will help – apparently they make you smoke a joint as you check in, so that you’ll be sufficiently stoned for them to take all your belongings without you even caring. [Note: Mum, I am JOKING. I hope.]

I found what seemed like a really good deal, and had the booking form all filled in when, as an afterthought, I deided to check the TripAdvisor reviews. I hastily closed the booking window when words like “faeces”, “mice”, “bed bugs” and “possible rapist” began leaping off the screen at me. I mean, come on. Prison sounds more safe and comfortable.

Lesson learned and lucky escape duly noted, I set about checking room availability in hostels with rooms under €20, weeding out the select few with internet access, and then cross referencing with the Real Reviews on TripAdvisor. It was seriously depressing. No sooner do you finally find somewhere that looks affordable and clean, than you find out that a guy sits at the end of your bed, watching you intently as you (don’t) fall asleep.

Happily, after about three hours of searching and several stomach-churning reviews, I have booked myself into a cheap but apparently clean, quiet, friendly and Eddie-free city centre hostel for a few days, and the famous Flying Pig Beach Hostel for the weekend! I was just curious, and its weekend rates were cheaper than anywhere else, so, y’know, party time, dudes! I kinda wish I still had my guitar and long hair. Bring on my first real backpacker experience…

Gulp.

Picture me

Saw this idea over at English Mum‘s. Not that I’m one for wasting time or anything, but this did entertain me for quite a while today! So, what you do is answer these questions:

  1. What is your first name?
  2. What is your favourite food?
  3. What school did you go to?
  4. What is your favourite colour?
  5. Who is your celebrity crush?
  6. What is your favourite drink?
  7. What is your dream holiday?
  8. What is your favourite dessert?
  9. What do you want to do when you grow up?
  10. Who/ what do you love most in life?
  11. Choose one word that describes you?
  12. What is your Flickr name?

But instead of just telling the world your answers, type your answer to the questions into a flickr search, then using only the first page, click on an image.  Copy and paste each of the urls into the Mosaic Maker.

You’d never be able to guess what some of my answers were from that. My life in pictures. I like it!

Dave’s got me paranoid about plagiarism, so I would just like to say for the record that I didn’t take any of these pictures, and I am not technologically savvy enough to “embed” (whatever that means) the string of gibberish that would apparently tell you who did take them. So I’ll copy English Mum and tell you that I’m happy to give you the URLs to any or all of them if you ask!

Coffee Break

“Did you know there are bees under the lawn?” I ask anxiously as I have a cup of coffee with Keanu Reeves. He has come round to do the gardening again, and I feel that he is an appropriate person with whom to share my recent fears about the current bee invasion in Leopoldsburg.

“Biz?” he asks uncertainly. “I do not know this ‘biz’ you say.”

Keanu does not speak very much English.

“You know, bees,” I explain, as if putting emphasis on the word will make up for its absence in his vocabularly. “Bzzzzzzz!” I continue helpfully, making fluttering gestures with my hands. “Bzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz!”

The gardener looks disturbed and slightly nervous at my best bee impression. I am a little put out. Never one to have the sense to quit while I’m ahead, I draw a bee on the back of the scribbled notes I have been making for some work that I’m doing. “Bee!” I say determinedly, tapping the page. “Bzzzzzz!”

Understanding dawns on Keanu’s face. “Ah!” he says happily, “Bee!”

“What is it in Dutch?” I ask, always keen to add to my already slightly ridiculous mental store of words in foreign languages.

He looks blankly at me. “How do you say ‘bee’?” I ask slowly, pointing unnecessarily at him and then at my excellent bee doodle.

“Bee,” he repeats.

“Yes,” I agree, beginning to regret ever mentioning this, “yes, ‘bee’. But what is the Dutch word for ‘bee’?”

“Bee,” he insists. I give up, smile encouragingly, and make a remark about the weather to indicate that we are through with the whole bee discussion.

Out of curiosity, I’ve just looked it up. The Dutch word for bee is ‘bij’. Pronounced ‘bee’.

Google search: do bees nest underground?

And the answer, to my surprise, is “yes”.

Did you know this?! It’s certainly news to me. This morning, I was sitting in the garden having a cup of coffee and browsing through blog posts on Google Reader, when I spotted the dog behaving in a very excited manner, shoving its nose and paws into a small hole in the lawn. I called to him, having noticed several similar holes lately and becoming quite alarmed at the thought of the house owners coming back to disover that I’d let the dog destroy the garden. He paid no attention, and I spotted a bee hovering close to the ground.

Alarm became panic, as I’m pretty convinced that a bee sting must surely kill a dog that is small enough to fit into a handbag. Thankfully the bee flew away… only to be replaced by another almost immediately. Hmmm. Concerned, I got up and went over to where the dog was excitedly prancing around the hole in the ground. Two more bees were crawling around the tiny entrance. I was going to get closer, but I have clearly watched too many cartoons, for I knew that a million bees would suddenly emerge in a smoke-like cloud as soon as I leaned down to investigate, covering me, swarming over my helpless body as they stung me to death.

I grabbed the dog and came inside to research bees on the internet instead.

It appears that, in addition to sharing the house with a large percentage of the world’s mosquito population, I am now being invaded by all the bees that have supposedly been disappearing from the planet. This is where they’ve been gathering, possibly building a small underground army and plotting Total World Domination. Lots and lots of bees. Growing in strength and numbers. Waiting for the right time.

Of course, being a blogger, this situation is much more dangerous for me than it would be for a non-blogger, as it is in my nature to want to take a photograph of the scene. Which would probably be a lot easier were I not someone who jumps uncontrollably at even the sound of an insect, and screams wildly if one makes a sudden movement.

The dog became more and more excited as I repeatedly advanced towards the Bee HQ, bouncing around me and barking as I leaned down to take a picture, and then chasing me happily as I ran away, screaming, from the inevitable bee ambush. I was constantly beaten back by bees either emerging from or returning to the hole. The bees do not want the world to know where they have been hiding.

There are bees everywhere. I don’t think I’ll be going outside any more, ever.

Good Food and Feeling Foreign

Food in Belgium is Good. That’s Good with a capital G.

I arrived in Brussels on Saturday afternoon after a long train journey, during which I was forced to share a carriage with a couple of teenagers who were eating the most delicious-smelling chips that ever existed, and a girl who was enjoying a waffle that dripped with syrup. It blinded me to everything else. The sights, the sounds, the buzz, the crowds, the great weather, the buskers… no, the only thought in my head was lunch. I stopped at a little wall hatch that sold Belgian Frites, and ordered what we Irish would call a poke o’ chips. I don’t know what they call it over here. I settled for saying “frites” and holding up one finger.

I was not disappointed. These chips were the nicest I have ever tasted (with the possible exception of the ones I had for lunch in a cool little restaurant on my first day in Tallinn, which fell into the category of Food that is impossible to eat without going ‘Mmmmmm’ with every single bite).

Then I had a waffle, as advised by Croquecamille. It was like taking a little trip to Food Heaven. Everywhere, everywhere, were the waffle carts and frites stands. Weaving my way through the crowds, I saw people sharing frites, eating Belgian chocolates, and tucking into waffles that were heaped with strawberries and cream, chocolate sauce, and various other delights.

It all looked incredibly appetising – until, that is, I followed the signs to Bruxelles-Midi station to catch a train home. I’d been amused at my guidebook’s description of the area surrounding this station. Do not, under any circumstances, go there alone at night! it warned in ominous bold print. Use one of the other stations if you can. Be on your guard. Don’t carry a handbag, and if you do, be prepared to wallop somebody over the head with it if you want to have any chance of keeping it (it didn’t actually say that last bit, obviously, but you get the idea). They were going a bit over the top, I felt.

The scent of frites and waffles gradually disappeared and was replaced with – strangely – the sickly sweet aroma of incense. Swanky restaurants with pretty pavement terraces became grubby street cafes selling scary-looking concoctions (most involving unidentifiable chunks of meat). Names of shops and posters on walls were no longer in French or Dutch, but in a Middle Eastern language of some sort, with unfamiliar symbols as letters. Youths skulked in doorways, smoking fragrant cigarettes, and I realised somewhat nervously that I was the only female in sight who was not wearing a head covering. People were watching me suspiciously. I had to swerve to avoid a brawl that spontaneously errupted on the pavement in front of me.

Choking on the clouds of incense, I entered the station. It was the first time that I’ve ever seen signs in French and heard it being spoken all around me that I actually felt comforted and in familiar surroundings. I don’t think I’m quite ready for non-European travels just yet, you know. In fact, I was very pleased with myself on the way home, when I started to get a horrible, uneasy feeling that I was once again on the wrong train. Do you speak English? I asked the woman next to me. She shook her head, saying something in Dutch, and I slumped back in momentary defeat. Francais? she asked. Oui, un peu, I said, brightening. I explained my train worries, and we had a very basic but helpful conversation. This is something that has really impressed me on my travels – seeing people meet and establish a common second language before easily entering into conversation. And now I’ve done it, too!

I was slightly less calm and confident after a long and complicated train announcement about an hour later, when the train was stopped at a station. Everyone stood up and began speaking in urgent tones, grabbing bags. Some left the train, others sat back down. I sat in the middle of it all, wondering what was going on and feeling increasingly nervous about where I was going to end up, as the three people I stopped and tried to ask for help shook their heads blankly and continued to speak Dutch. I must admit that I panicked slightly, which might explain why I suddenly leapt to my feet like a madwoman and yelled Does anybody speak English?! over the general babble.

Still. At least I got back. And I seem to be getting over my fear of drawing attention to myself…

From Luxury’s Lap To Rock Bottom

Oh, crap.

I have just realised that I’m homeless. I actually am a homeless person, that is to say, a person with no home. I am sans domicile and without casa. I have no abode. This sobering realisation just hit me in the face like a branch that’s been pushed forward by the hiker in front of you, who has then rather selfishly let go of it. Whack! Homeless! It happened when I noticed that it’s only a week until the house owners return from their holiday and will most likely expect me to leave. Panickily, I went on to couchsurfing.com and started firing away some pleading messages to complete strangers, asking if they’d take me in for a night or two. It was at this point that I thought to myself “Hmmm. If someone was homeless, this would be a really good way of getting somewhere to stay. Sleep on a different couch every night.” My thoughts snowballed, as they so often do, and suddenly it became glaringly obvious to me that I am, in fact, one of those homeless people doing exactly that. It was most unsettling.

I have also had to buy a smaller bag, because my next month of travelling is going to be a far cry from the cushty lifestyle that I have experienced in the House Of Luxury, and I cannot possibly carry that monster of a backpack around with me without causing permanent damage to my back. This means that I really am travelling light, with only a few changes of clothes, a passport, and a bottle of shampoo to my name. Add to this the fact that I have no confirmed places to stay for the next month, and that several nights are likely to involve roughing it, sleeping at airports, crashing on couches, or as a very last resort shelling out more money than I can afford in order to share a dorm with 15 other people in a smelly youth hostel, and you’ll see I’m really no different from the guy curled up outside Tesco with his bag of belongings and dependence on the kindness of strangers.

Anyway. I’m trying not to panic about it, because I did say I wanted to see the world, and until I can afford to stay in fancy hotels and have people carry my cases of designer label clothes around, this is the only way I can do it. Did I tell you about the Ryanair sale? At a fiver per flight, it was a lifesaver! And so, my plans for the next month are as follows: get a lift to The Netherlands and spend a few days in Rotterdam, a few in Amsterdam, and a few in Utrecht, working my way around by train and eventually catching a flight to London (because that was the easiest place to go in order to get flights to further afield… not because I’m suddenly missing the UK or anything). Then it’s off to Balaton, Hungary. No real reason. Is the “but the flight only cost a fiver!” thing enough?! Will check out Budapest, of course, and then on to Vienna to catch a flight to Stockholm.

I’ve always wanted to go to Sweden. Partly because my A Level history teacher was a bit obsessed with the place, and his enthusiasm rubbed off, but also (less understandably) because I absolutely adored an obscure song entitled “Sweden” by the Divine Comedy at roughly the same time. Months of tunelessly howling “I would like to live in Sweden… Sweeeeedennnnnn….!” to the funky orchestral music must have brainwashed me a bit, because I want to go there more than could reasonably be expected from my limited knowledge of the country. Anyway. It’s not quite living there, but a few days is a nice introduction. And did I mention that it’s only a fiver to get there?

Then on to Latvia, where I will catch a bus and make the six hour journey back to Tallinn – which somehow seems like home to me now, when I think about it. After that, who knows? The world’s a big place. And, err, I have no money. But I’m enjoying exploring the various ways of travelling cheaply. If anyone has any other ideas, I’d be delighted to hear them! And until then, does anyone want to buy a huge, oversized backpack, nearly new, containing several (not nearly as nice) items of clothing?