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Chasing The American Dream

May 14, 2007


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Like rebooting, once in a while we could all use a good adventure to stimulate the senses. I debated with myself as to whether I wanted t make the effort to take on a big adventure to the unknown. At first I was against it. I woke up at 2:30 pm once again still not used to the time change and going to bed at 6 am. Then my Belgian blogging friend EAO said it was raining in Brussels so I just figured I’d hang out in Gent. But when I walked around Gent Sunday, it was dead. Most shops were closed and the streets were virtually empty. Even my little bakery was closed. I guess Saturday is the big day to go out as it was packed with people and all the shops were open. It was then that I decided to take on the adventure of going to the famous Grote Markt (Grand Palace) in Brussels.

The adventure began simply enough with a cab ride to the train station. I picked a short line and got my round-trip ticket for my train which happened to be leaving in all of three minutes. I did a full sprint to train platform 10 hoping I’d make it. I wasn’t lucky enough to have the train leave on platform one. I had to run all the way out to number 10. I got there right as the bell went off. I did a double take at the monitor to make sure I was on the right train. I have this bad habit of getting on wrong trains. It looked right, but I had no time to figure anything out so I just got on. I sat down and felt the ol’ heart pumping not only from the sprint, but also from the rush and anxiety you get from these journeys to the unknown. I was 90 percent certain I was on the right train. I just hoped I would see my station within the next 15 minutes.

Damn. Big decision #1. Stay or get off the train? We stopped at a familiar station (Brussels Midi), and there was an announcement made in Dutch. My stop, Brussels Central, was mentioned in there somewhere. I didn’t know whether to get off at Midi and get a connecting train to Central or to stay on this train to get to Central. De volgende halte is Bruxelles Centraal. Le prochain arret est Bruxelles Central. I was hoping that in either language, it meant that the next stop was Central. So I stayed on the train, heart pumping once again. We komen aan in Bruxelles Centraal. Nous arrivons a Bruxelles Central. Sacre Bleu, I made it. Now the walking adventure began. The search for famous Grote Markt.

I walked out of the train station and looked for any sign of the Grote Markt. Aaah, I found a directional sign and headed that way while looking for a church spire landmark that EAO told me about. I spotted what I thought was a church spire but really had no idea where I was going. So I just took a left and headed for some of the beautiful architecture I saw in the near distance. Just about then, a light rain began to fall seemingly from nowhere. It was sunny only seconds ago. I grabbed my hat and windbreaker out of my “survivor” bag. No umbrella for this silly American.

After a nice 30 minute walk up and back down the streets, I still didn’t think I was any closer to Grote Market. I’m not sure how I missed it. It was a huge square, big, famous, tons of people. On my way back to where I started, the skies opened up big time, again seemingly out of nowhere. My skimpy jacket and hat were no match for this storm complete with lightning and thunder. As I ran, I spotted a low level parking lot sheltered beautifully from the rain. So I sat under the shelter and watch the storm amid flashes of bright lightning and claps of loud thunder. A typical “me” adventure. Finally, after about 30 minutes, the rain slowed and I could hear the thunder now rumbling in the distance. Thank you Belgacom for the free shelter. Time to continue the adventure.

I ambled my way back down the slippery, wet streets greeted by the sun. I couldn’t believe how fast the weather changed yet again. I followed one more directional sign toward Grote Markt. So far, I’d not seen any of EAO’s “must sees.” You know, sometimes when you’re on these adventures you end up finding a place or landmark purely by accident. Accident or not, I was glad to see a familiar name from EAO’s email. It was the Galeries St. Hubert, an enclosed shopping mall or arcade with shops on either side and had a long tunnel-like ceiling enclosure. EAO told me this was Europe’s first pure shopping arcade founded in 1847! The view inside the arched opening was magnificent. Clothing, food, cafes, and plenty of chocolate. After making a must chocolate purchase, I wondered on. I was searching for a stovepipe Charlie Brown-type cap to buy, but no luck thus far.

When I got back outside, lo and behold, I ran into a second EAO landmark. Rue de Bouchers. Wow, what a view! I looked down the narrow cobblestone street as far as I could see and both sides were crammed with shops and cafes. As I walked farther down, the shops disappeared, and I was surrounded with wall-to-wall cafes on both sides of the street. It cracked me up. Like survey takers in a mall, waiters begged for your attention. They all had similar lines, “Best and freshest food here, sir,” spoken in a French accent. I didn’t really have to believe them. I mean, most of the cafes had their fresh seafood actually displayed out front. It was beautiful and a rare sight to behold for a foodie like me. I couldn’t imagine having to actually pick one of these places to eat out of the hundreds on the street. My route was getting complicated because now there were side streets filled with similar looks of shops and cafes. I wanted to go down each street, but I stayed the course and figured I could go back later after I found the actual Grote Markt square. Bouchers ended so I made a left and then another left hoping to catch some of those side streets I had mist. Whoaaa Nellie! I looked up and looky hear what I stumbled upon; the one and only Grote Markt square! Hokie smokes Bullwinkle, what a sight! It literally took my breath away. This wasn’t your everyday town square folks. The spectacular Town Hall and the surrounding buildings date back to the 15th century and had to be rebuilt in the 19th century due to wars. I did a few laps around the square and took in all the history before returning to tourist mode and whipping out my camera like the rest of the crowd. It felt cool to be in that moment. A historic place, a worldly famous one, and a sense of accomplishment for being able to finish the adventure.

I went down a few side streets and saw more chocolate shops. One even had a chocolate fountain spewing ribbons of milk chocolate. Mmmmm. I found a souvenir shop and found something for Andy and even found my Charlie Brown hat for a mere six Euros. I went back to the square to locate EAO’s bar that he mentioned. I simply HAD to see the hanging marionettes. I took my last two pictures of the bar before my batteries went dead. After a Belgian beer of EAO’s choice, I was feeling my own batteries wearing out. I came back around and saw the entrance to St Hubert so I guess I made a complete circle. Heck, I owned this town now. I knew exactly where the train station was and headed back. I passed the spot where I came into the town only then realizing I should have turned right instead of left. Oh well, part of the adventure, huh?

In the train station, I studied the board but decided to ask a clerk just in case. No wrong trains at this late hour. The 7:27 took me back to Gent no problem. The 30 minute ride gave me time to type this story and gave me time to reflect on what a great day I had and best of all, what a great decision I made to journey into the unknown.



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