Belgium

Trains and Planes

While I should really be working on my five-page paper that’s due at midnight on Wednesday, I thought I’d take advantage of a spare moment to talk about my trip back to France.  For the first time in about five years, nothing strange or unusual happened to me.  No late departures or arrivals, no strikes, no dogs sniffing the luggage or an overnight stay in a posh hotel.  Just one very long trip home on very very little sleep.  And, I had to deal with the intricacies of European train stations.

For those of you who have seen the film Hugo, train stations in Europe bring to mind adorable ten-year-olds, old-fashioned travelers, sleek super-fast trains, and the occasional flower seller.  Don’t get me wrong, you’ll find a lot of that, but you’ll also find peddlers, policemen, creepy single men who sit down next to you uninvited, and, when it gets closer to dusk, a somewhat “rougher” crowd mixed in with your average backpacker or travel-worn business person. I suppose Americans have such a glam image of European train stations precisely because our own are so terrible.  I remember taking the Amtrak at 5:00 am in Omaha once, a train station that is open a mere three hours a day, from around 5-6 am, for the one departing train, and 10-11 pm for the daily incoming train.  And it’s located next to a dark and scary abandoned parking lot, underneath a bridge.  No wonder we tend to envision ax murderers.

Train stations in Europe, I know several of them.  Geneva’s, Lausanne’s, Zürich’s, Bern’s, Paris’s, Amiens’s, Lille’s, and now Bruxelles Midi, to name a few.  And good thing I had a minimum of seven hours to figure out the Brussels train station, because I felt completely out of my element in it.

Layout of Bruxelles Midi train station

Layout of Bruxelles Midi train station

My journey to Brussels was pretty straightforward: one forty-five minute flight from St. Louis to Chicago O’Hare, a brief layover, one hour and a half flight on one of United’s awesome new Dreamliners to Washington Dulles, a longer layover, and one seven-hour flight to Brussels.  Plus a very loud baby behind me, little to no sleep, and a wonderful opportunity to watch The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen in German), which I highly recommend.  Everything went so smoothly I was amazed.  The man working at Border Control looked at my passport and stamped it 5 seconds later, which makes me still angry about the whole Belgian woman incident on my way out of the country (see Home for the Holidays for more on that story).

Once I got to the main part of the airport, that’s when things started getting confusing.  I had two suitcases to drag, and luckily I had read up on where to find the airport train station (do your research on the Brussels Airport Website).    It’s located on the lower level, which confused me, as you couldn’t take the main escalator to reach it (I eventually found an elevator that went downstairs).  They had a little ticket counter, which was luckily open on a Sunday, where you could buy the train ticket to Bruxelles Midi for 7,70€.  There are about four stops until you get to the Midi train station, so the whole trip took a little over 30 minutes, including wait time.  Once at the train station, I had one of those freak out moments where all the train departures are written in a foreign language – that is to say, in Flemish instead of French.  To make matters worse, I had originally bought myself a ticket that left at 16:55, whereas my flight arrived in the Brussels airport at 7:10.  I was not about to wait around on no sleep, so I tried not to panickly call Hedi (not too many times at least) and figure out when the next train to Lille would be and where to change my ticket.

Thanks to the power of the internet, Hedi told me that there was a TGV headed for Lille leaving at 10:18.  The only train I saw was listed as Perpignan, in the South of France.  Was it passing through Lille? No way to tell on the departure screen.  I eventually ventured over to the ticket counter for le service national, where the man rudely told me in French that I would have to go over to the service international in order to change my ticket.  It, unfortunately, did not open until 10:15 on Sundays.  Dragging my two bags behind me, I eventually found the Thalys information center, hoping to at least pass through Paris if I couldn’t get my tickets changed.  The woman and man working there listened to me, laughed, told me quite clearly that the counter for buying new tickets was not yet open, but changing tickets already sold was possible.  “You are not in France, we work here on Sundays,” he told me confidently.  Whatever, I just wanted to change my ticket.  I finally arrived at the fourth ticket counter/information desk, where, to my pleasant surprise, the woman told me that it would only cost me an additional euro to change my ticket to the 10:18 train for Perpignan, with the first stop at Lille Europe.  A mere thirty-minute train which I still had to wait another hour for.

Luckily I’ve taken a train to London before, and I’ve had to change train stations between Lille Flandres and Lille Europe when taking a Eurostar to London.  For those of you who are unaware, if you pass through Lille to another European city outside of France, your tickets will reflect two train stations but not tell you how to get from one to the next.  Rest assured, they are a mere 200m apart from one another, with certain helpful signs or helpful individuals ready to direct you when you ask, like an idiot, what you’re supposed to do.  No platform 9 and 3/4, however, but an eight-minute walk or 15-minute tram ride (depending on if there’s one already waiting for you) from one train station to another.  Kinda sucks when you have to drag two heavy suitcases behind you.

How to get to Platform 9 3/4, I mean, from Lille Flandres to Lille Europe

How to get to Platform 9 3/4, I mean, from Lille Flandres to Lille Europe

Apparently there was no problem changing my next ticket back to Amiens to an earlier train, although the earliest train was two hours later, at 13:00.  The woman working the ticket counter basically told me that there was no point in changing the ticket, as it was cheaper to leave four hours earlier than scheduled.  The worst part of this whole train-changing business? No one checked my ticket on either train!

Finally, I arrived home-sweet-home, to the Amiens train station.  An ugly piece of work, but a familiar one.

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Categories: Belgium, Travel, United States | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Home for the Holidays

Well, I did it.  I made it home.  I suppose I can say that the curse has been lifted, because after three times in a row of missing my connecting flight and having to spend the night in a hotel, I finally made it home the day of my TransAtlantic flight. The night of Christmas Eve, to be exact.

That’s not to say that my trip was without incident.  When I travel, something bizarre is always bound to happen.

Christmas ’11

To give you a better idea of my 24-hours of travel, here’s a brief portion of my travel log:

“It’s been a long day. First, I had difficulties falling asleep last night and had to wake up at 5:00 am on less than five hours of sleep. Hedi and I rushed to the train station in order not to miss my 5:35 am train to Lille, but it turned out that there wasn’t any train heading to Lille.  Apparently there had been a planned grève ponctuel and no trains were coming or going to Lille on December 24.  Very sweaty and starting to panick, we ended up at l’Escale of the Amiens train station where the most organized, efficient Frenchwoman I’ve ever met instructed us to take a train to Paris Nord (us being myself and a Lebanese girl also trying to get to the Belgian airport), from where we were supposed to catch a TGV to Brussels. Unfortunately, once we got to Paris, the men at l’Accueil had no idea what we were talking about, despite the fact that the woman had called ahead and given our names.  Luckily, every time we explained our situation to the conductor and ticket inspector, they let us pass without an issue.  (Perhaps it’s good and bad to travel on Christmas Eve!) We ended up sitting in the wagon-bar, where I ordered an espresso and a pain au chocolat. All good so far.

Upon arriving at the gare Bruxelles-Midi, we asked how to find the train to take us to the airport and buy a ticket.  Once at the airport, I said good-bye to the Arab girl and went to the United check in, which took forever, as usual. The security was really intense: even before reaching the counter, they scanned my passport and asked all sorts of questions. Much worse than the grilling I had previously experienced in Lille when trying to board the Eurostar for London. At the check-in counter it was very straightforward. Baggage, passport, boarding passes, instructions, gates.  Unfortunately, I had to pass through border control, and I definitely chose the wrong line. The woman checking the passports took her sweet time, holding everyone up for who knows what reason. Either super serious about border control or bitter about working on Christmas Eve. The Lebanese girl was in front of me, ironically, and I heard her arguing with the woman in French (I wonder whether she realized that I wasn’t French, as we spoke French to each other the whole time – she tutoyéd me, and nous avons fait la bise before parting).  When it came my turn, the Belgian woman point-blank asked me for my residency card.  Which, I might remind you, I don’t need to have my first year in France, since I have both the visa de long séjour and the vignette OFII.  I pointed this out to the woman, but she mentioned some nonsense about how I couldn’t travel in and out of Belgium without a residency permit or something like that (her English wasn’t making much sense to me at this point).  Oh well, I just hope that I can get back into Europe through Belgium on my way back in.

After Border control, I had to go through Security, which was a pretty intensely long line.  Luckily I had plenty of time and found my gate.  On my Transatlantic flight, I sat next to a Belgian woman who only spoke French, which made things sometimes difficult for her when asked what she wanted to eat, drink, etc.  I asked for a halal meal, so it’s hard to compare the quality of the food with what the rest of the plane ate.  I really enjoyed the main dish, some sort of beef in biryani rice.  I was so tired that I slept a good deal on the TGV as well as on my two flights.  I also took advantage of the touch screen on the international flight.  Ha, I played maybe 2 hours worth of “in-flight trivia.” I dominated the Geopolitics category.  How many of you can name the only country to have a square flag? (Hint: it’s Nepal).  I also took advantage of the movie selection, finally watching 2001: A Space Odyssey and then an indie writer-themed love story called Ruby Sparks.

Like all other passengers, I had to fill out the customs declaration form.  No to animal products, time spent on a farm, valuable merchandise, or more than $10,000 in cash on my person.  At the Washington international Dulles airport, we had to pass through immigration and then take off our luggage (thank goodness it took less time than in NYC, I’m never traveling through JFK again if I can help it!).  Then we had to re-check our luggage, deliver our customs form, and repass through Security.  They are now starting to do a random sampling of “chemicals present on your hands” in addition to the full body scan, metal detector, and screening of luggage.  My plane to Saint Louis was tiny.  I’m happy to say that I slept for most of the flight.  Unfortunately with my contacts on.”

It’s great to be back.  Back with the two dogs and cat, my three brothers, my parents.  Spending some quality time, eating, running, watching our cult family musical/play/movie, Les Misérables.  Eating Creole shrimp gumbo.  Exchanging gifts and IOUs.  Drinking a lot of coffee.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Categories: Belgium, Seasons, United States | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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