A Romantic Trip to Remember
We are off to Brussels to celebrate Valentine's Day! How romantic is that? We have been in Germany for three weeks and it's time to do a little country hopping and taste amazing chocolates like Pistachio Pralines. Planning ahead, we book our return train travel to Brussels for one night. Because we are, once again, traveling on a skinny budget, we have booked our accommodation in a lower budget hotel that is on the edge of the old city. I am so excited I could pop!
All photos and writing are copyrighted by Me - Teapixie! :)
300 km Per Hour
In Cologne our gracious German cousin guides us through the city, past the towering cathedral to the all-glass-encased train station. Like so many people here, she speaks excellent English. My husband speaks German and my infant daughter speaks all languages and no languages at the same time. I am surprised by how well the locals respond to her babbling. I have jumped into speaking German with both of my feet in my mouth - I figure I haven't got anything to lose.
At the train station, we purchase our magical passage from Cologne to Brussels on the fast train; it goes 300km per hour. I can't believe I am finally getting to ride one of these motion masters. I have only ever ridden the train in Kenya, more affectionate homage to slower times than a showpiece of technology. As we are being guided to our train, our cousin is explaining that there are three stations in Brussels and we need to be sure that we get off at the Middle station.
Settling into our seats, me with my daughter in my lap, we wave crazily back and forth with our cousin. There is a slightly more traditional-looking train heading to Russia on the next track - how exotic is that? I really can't believe we are off to adventure through a new country by train.
How To Get On A Train - Learn About Train Travel In Europe
Are you planning a trip to Europe? Now is a great time to visit the countries that are suffering financially. Places to stay might be affordable and countries like Italy and Spain would be happy to see you leave some tourist dollars behind. Consider traveling by train, there is nothing like it for seeing the countryside, stress-free.
On The Edge Of Brussels
As our train is whizzing through the countryside--and 300kph is really whizzing--we remark on the beauty of the little villages and how amazing it is that there is regionally distinctive architecture. The houses in Belgium do not look like the houses in Germany and the designs change abruptly at the border. And yet, to my North American eyes, the countries are so small, and the villages are so small. How is it that there is such a strong sense of difference between these tiny communities? But there is.
On the other side of Liege, I am overwhelmed as our train hurtles past a World War II memorial: the Ardennes America Cemetery that stretches across 90 acres with white crosses marking the graves of over 5,000 American soldiers. I can feel the tears welling in my eyes; my Granddad served in the Canadian army during World War II, and he had changed when he came back - something that had an impact on our family far into the future. Seeing so many graves makes me think of how wars have impacted families on all sides. Heartbreaking.
But, of course, I'm on a bullet train, so those thoughts have to be as fleeting as the scenery. We are in and out of villages almost faster than I can focus on the centre of each community. How many millions of people live in this country? Between each village are farmer's fields with hedges, fences, and trees delineating borders. And then, POOF - we are on the edge of Brussels.
My husband and I are talking about the languages used in Belgium. Like everywhere, language here is political. The conflict between the French speaking and Flemish speaking Belgians is long lived. Wikipedia reports that even in such a tiny country, some Flemish speakers are advocating for separation of Flanders from Wallonia, with the idea that Flanders would unite with the Netherlands.
I feel ignorant because my French is weak and I am completely flummoxed by Flemish - I have absolutely no connection with the language. This is an issue.
Flummoxed by Flemish?
Would you recommend traveling to a country where you do not speak the local language(s)?
As our train slows past the closed northern train station, I am watching closely for the train to stop in the middle station. Over the loudspeaker an extremely important announcement is being made in a variety of languages, none of which we can speak, until the English language announcement begins. And then everything is garbled. The audio is not really English, just some weird distorted mess, as if the words are being eaten by a monster.
We are a little panicked.
"Did you understand the German or French announcement?" I fearfully ask my husband. The train is stopping and we are desperately looking for the sign that will tell us which station we are in, but we can't see it. What can we see? A simple sign that says, "Zuid".
My husband understood nothing said over the announcement and neither of us has ever seen the word "Zuid" before and presumably it means something in Flemish. "Sounds like it might mean south?" Where in the world is the French sign???
We are in a tizzy and within seconds the doors of the train close. A small consolation: there were only 3 people waiting for our train on the platform, so it probably isn't the main station.
I look out the window and the streets of Brussels are moving by faster and faster until they are quickly replaced by wide open fields and lots of sheep and lambs. I can feel my heart beginning to beat as fast as the train - where are we going?
A man and his young boy are standing in the aisle and begin speaking to us in French. We recognize them as the people who had been waiting on the platform. We can't understand every word but it's clear that we are in their seats.
I begin to cry.
I have my daughter in my arms and I have no idea what to do. Will someone come to check our tickets and unceremoniously throw us from the train? Isn't that what happens in the movies?
Who Drives This Train?
I gather up my daughter and move out of our seats. With tears streaming down my face, once again, I am stumbling towards the doors of our car. Once through the doors I see people standing in the areas between the cars; the wind is blowing through the cracks between the cars but there are bench seats. I sit down with my daughter while my husband begins frantically looking for a ticket master.
Quickly moving through car after car, he can't find anyone responsible for the train. He is beginning to feel a sense of uneasiness - is there anyone driving this thing? Eventually, he comes upon a table of men playing cards and one of them, wearing a sort of uniform, is the ticket master. My husband apologetically explains our predicament to which the man laughs heartily and says in a thick French accent, "Well, I guess you'll have to buy a return ticket in Paris, then!" And that is that.
My husband returns to our open deck between the two cars, reports on our destination and strikes up a conversation with a guy who is travelling "for free" by riding between the cars. He intends to be in the south of France by day's end. We are being bulleted to Paris; kind of for free, following an obviously already established free travel option, and we are not even considered criminals! How exciting and freaky all at the same time.
I am now wishing we hadn't booked our hotel in Brussels, but we can't afford to cancel and we don't have the time to try to find something affordable in Paris. Imagine my one and only visit to Paris is a pit stop at the Gare du Norde. Who would have guessed? We don't dare go outside to peek at the Eiffel Tower - we are feeling guilty about our free train ride and we just want to get back to Brussels. But we do run around like crazy chickens trying to figure out where to buy our return tickets and learning that it won't cost as much as we fear.
Settled into our seats on the return trip to Brussels, we are feeling satisfied with ourselves, having recovered from our blunder. We both agree on this tip: wherever the train stops is where we will get off, no matter which station it is. Once again, the stream of languages announcing the very important message comes over the speaker system, with the English announcement garbled. We hop out at "Zuid" and stumble around the platform trying to a find a confirmatory French sign. There is none to be seen.
As I started writing this story I thought I would look up the word "Zuid" in Flemish. Surprise - it means "South" in English, as we guessed. But the city name for the station is "Brussels Midi" - HAHAHAHAHA! Go figure?
So, here is your tip: If you are riding the train in Brussels you will need to know the names of the stations in both Flemish and French. Here they are for you:
Brussels Nord (also known as Gare du Nord or Noordstation)
Brussels Centrale (also known as Gare Centrale or Brussel Centraal )
Brussels Midi, the busiest of all the stations in Brussels (also known as Gare du Midi or Zuidstation); it is the south station for Brussels city.
(These station names and info are courtesy of Brussels.info)
Have you traveled in other countries where you have had to struggle with your limited alternative language skills? Do you have crazy train-travel stories? Feel welcome to share with all of us, right here.
© 2012 Tea Pixie