In April I had a premature and over dramatic quarter life crisis. My childhood friend conveniently asked me if I wanted to go to Belgium, I had no previous knowledge of anything in Belgium but naturally, said yes (I didn’t even have a passport yet). I used my stash of “please use this on you and not student loans” gift money I had being saving up for a year and bought a round trip ticket the next day. After original housing plans falling through, an air bnb booked two weeks before and no set plan, this is what ensued:
*I wrote this jet lagged as all heck, grammatical errors will be found*
Thursday 8/8/19– Woke up in NYC after a night of working a tourism event. After a day of locking keys in a car in Albany, having to find someone who “knew a guy” to get them out and postponing an Amtrak – I was ready to get going. We met up with an old high school friend in Chelsea at a bar with the most brutally blunt but hilarious Irish bartender I’ve ever met. New friends were made from Australia to Florida, everyone was in the moment and I haven’t laughed that much in a long time. I would describe all of the time in NYC as a beautiful disaster. The city flooded that night, directions were confused and a bodega was also flooded with Coors Light. I somehow saw the skyline up close with the Empire State building in the background from a rooftop for the first time that I’ve realized even though I’ve been to the city more times than I can count now. I spent 5 hours in an airport in a haze and reentered the typical traveling “time doesn’t exist” mindset. I watched hordes of “travel couples” pass through and really appreciated the nature of my trip, setting off on a spontaneous adventure to land in a country I’ve never been to while having been in a place the past few months where I had nothing to hold me back from just going for it. I boarded my flight with an oddly comforting “here goes nothing” mindset.
Highlight: I had an in-depth conversation on life philosophy with my uber driver in NYC (go figure). I told him about my trip, how I’m leaving feeling comfortable with who I am and how I am going with very little money saved but knew I needed the experience of throwing myself into something unknown intentionally to grow as a person and that I really only cared about that. He talked about living in an expensive city as an uber driver and how happy and grateful he is for everyday he has, how he believes that no matter what if he is strong in himself and shows himself and others love and kindness, he’ll be the happiest man alive. It ended with us both deciding our souls had met before if some other life existed or that we were at least supposed to cross paths in this one. When I told my friends at the bar they agreed it was the most “MK” experience I could have had in an uber because I arrived pretty much tearing up from how the uber driver sent me off by saying “I know you’ll be content in life if you surround yourself with people with a heart like yours,” after standing by that’s the kindest thing anyone has ever said to me. People are AWESOME and friends happen in the weirdest places.
Friday 8/9/19– Woke up in Belgium absolutely exhausted but excited. We were the only people staying in our Airbnb which was above a bakery that our host owned surrounded by bars and cafes. There was construction all along the street which could be seen by our rusty but wonderful terrace for the sole reason that it was ours. We met for lunch with two people who had lived in Belgium for long periods of time, there was aimless wandering, and I got to witness reminiscing from old times they had all spent in Brussels. I got to experience the Delirium village which is basically just a street of buildings dedicated to a brewing company. I watched the Liverpool game across the street from our place and made friends with a group of travelers from the UK, Australia and Ireland. They warmly let me into their group. The energy was incredible and I went to bed so ready to take on the next day.
Saturday & Sunday 8/10/19 & 8/11/19– Train tickets bought the day before to Paris brought us to a studio apartment that we had to ourselves in a quiet area of the city. We lived off meat and cheese from the market and went to bed early after quiet nights hanging out in our backyard. We mastered the metro, hopped on it the first day and tackled Montmartre, the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame. Being as graceful as I am, I greeted Montmartre by falling up the stairs of the metro station. We rewarded ourselves with a happy hour aperol spritz and hours of taking in unplanned sightseeing including the Moulin Rouge which I heavily romanticized as a middle schooler. I felt lucky to be 24 and in Paris, a place that I definitely had idealized too much in the past but gained a sense of self-reliance from learning to navigate along with my travel buddy even though the only words I knew how to say hello and thank you in (with an obvious American accent).
Sunday in Paris brought us to viewing paintings that I had learned about years before. We saw works from Monet among many other artists I was shocked that I was seeing in person. We wandered among couples who actually seemed to like each other and randomly turned corners to find out we were in really important places by accident. I had a sense that I was exactly where I was supposed to be in every moment just by pure chance. Lunch was spent eating chips on church steps with the first ever Louis Vuitton store around the corner, the best type of irony but I felt happier to be there in the circumstances that I was rather than I probably could have ever been if I was living the typical Paris visit stereotype. We retired early that night, I ate a gluten free baguette for dinner and chocolate ice cream in our apartment- true class. We ended up dumping a bottle of Rose into the sink because it turns out 3 euro wine isn’t that fun to sip on.
Monday 8/12/19– We ended up in Frankfurt where all the ubers are Mercedes benz and texting does not work. We successfully met up with two friends who play soccer there, one that I’ve known since I was 18 living on the same floor in the dorms (I’ve come a long way from misplacing my lanyard every weekend in his room freshman year after frat parties). We drank market wine in the streets legally and had a ridiculous photoshoot in Romer. An insane storm hit secluding all of us to a random bar in a city square where we stayed until walking back to the air bnb after having the best street food of my life. Frankfurt was an absolute whirlwind where I didn’t have to rely on the 8 german phrases I knew but of course tried to anyways, accidentally at an Irish pub first. Our crew laughed a lot and it was great hanging with two old friends and one new while visiting a country I had never been to before.
Tuesday 8/13/19– We woke up in Germany with a mission to get back to Brussels with a stop in Liege to visit my friend’s old classmates. This ended up in train delays that we never found out the reason for but handled calmly and a couple hours in Cologne where we saw the coolest cathedral we have ever seen. Liege was filled with a visit to the most oddly decorated bar ever to meet up with folks and a two hour Fleetwood Mac playlist setting the scene which we appreciated. I was lucky enough to be guided on an impromptu tour of the city after during golden hour and listened to a short history lesson from our local pal that I appreciated immensely. It wasn’t a tourist city at all so it felt like I was being let in on a secret of life in Belgium. We hopped on the train shortly after and headed to Delirium with one of the pals in tow then to our air bnb which felt like home to return to.
Wednesday 8/14/19– The “lazy” day that turned into one of my favorite days in Europe! We walked 8 miles, mostly in the rain and stumbled upon a building I had recognized from my favorite style of architecture but never knew the whereabouts or city. We walked into a music festival by accident and sat by a fountain. Every sight I saw this day was breathtaking. We visited every church we saw, one where I was overwhelmed with the feeling of sacred that place must be. I watched the Super Cup that night with two friends from Scotland, and Liverpool won! I thought of my cousin who had passed away in May and how I’ve been watching games in his memory, but now in Europe where I never thought I’d be. I thought of how I felt after the first one I watched after his passing where they won and I was amongst strangers midday at a soccer bar in Syracuse. Every win and reprise of You’ll Never Walk Alone felt important that trip, as I was truly grateful for life and my decision embrace fully living it despite previously having been terrified of committing to the trip.
Thursday 8/15/19– We took the train to Brugges and I was in AWE of how beautiful it was. Canal ways and Dutch influences made this city absolutely unforgettable. We saw a parade of carriages pulled by mini horses and watched strangers play piano on a platform. We made it back to Brussels that night and capped off the night with dinner over mussels, a glass of free wine from the restaurant and one last visit to the city center at night. I went to bed that night not wanting to leave.
Friday 8/16/19– Hurried to hop trains to the airport. Got upgraded to Delta Comfort + behind first class on tickets that are supposed to be by no means upgradable, took this as a good omen. Long drive/train ride back to my apartment from landing in JFK and somehow stayed up till 5 am Saturday in a state of delirium, very on brand for my life
Unexpected Lessons, Thoughts & Feelings
- Being back has been hard because of general jet lag malaise, getting back into routine and coming back to a life that I disrupted with a trip that was weirdly transformative. Lack of sleep is probably the largest part of this but also the switch in waking up with the mindset of “how can I make this the best day ever?” back to the usual “how do I get through today?”- I will try to incorporate the latter more often though.
- One of my favorite parts about travel is there are always times for me that I am forced to be alone, I usually spend these times happily surrounded by strangers either enjoying a meal, coffee or glass of wine at a table and journaling. I don’t know why I don’t do this in my city more often.
- I left the states an absolute control freak when it came to uncertainty. I threw myself into only uncertainty knowing I needed that experience (didn’t sleep for nights before) but eventually had an overwhelming sense of calm that it’d work out with each new challenge. Being back to familiarity is dizzying but I think I’ll carry this calm during messiness with me more so than I ever did before. I came home feeling way more self-reliant than I ever have before. Happy to start a new chapter with a better mindset and a strengthened independence.
- People and feeling are universal. I approached every new face with the same empathy I hold usually and I recognized things I loved about people at home within people I met that share completely different backgrounds.
- The way I narrate myself varies with where I am. People seem more unapologetic with strangers during travel because the subconscious fear of judgement doesn’t hit you (at least I think). With no preconceived notions, it’s easier to not try to stick to a role you might have either grown out of long ago or never really were. I usually let my freak flag fly either way but I didn’t think twice about being honest with my goals, hopes and dreams when discussing with outsiders. I think I was one of the worst versions of myself until May of last year then rapidly changed and actively worked towards changing the way I live in the world, it was awesome being able to step outside of that into a place where I could just be. There is a way to be “strong vulnerable,” it was great practicing that while away.
- When in doubt, just find the nearest Irish Pub and grab yourself a stool at the bar even if for a coffee. Special shout out to O’Reilly’s in Frankfurt and Brussels, Waxy O’Sheas in Missouri and O’Donaghues in Manhattan.
- Travel can be escapism but you will deal with the same thoughts and feelings. I left with things in my personal life kind of a mess, I knew these problems would still be there upon return but the experience of leaving can change perspective.
- This trip was by no means glamorous, there were times I was anxious or generally lost but I had no choice but to try different approaches. I often go into autopilot based on feeling or intuition but having to train your brain to use logic along with it when you usually struggle with it is empowering when you problem solve in a new way. At one point I was running out of money the day before pay day with no access to internet due to an auto payment and had to get back to Brussels. I ended up significantly withdrawn for an hour but made myself bounce back and realize how lucky I was to be where I was dealing with that problem. This was huge. Seriously, I suck at using logic, this has been the first time in my life I’ve really even had to attempt to have a sense of direction.
- It’s always great to be home even when you don’t want to be home yet. I am SO tired but was THRILLED when I walked in my apartment and got to catch up with one of my housemates. As exciting as hopping on a train to a new spot each day is, it’s always great to laugh and see people you love. Even if you wake up at 5 am the next day craving a sandwich and binge watch Tiny Home shows with your friend.
- Things I’d do different: BUY TRAIN TICKETS IN ADVANCE. There is nothing too fun about winging it and getting the last train out while paying way more than you would have. I would probably also try to book the flight more in advance so I could learn some of the language of where I was going. The advantage was that I felt calm when I was in places after the French speaking countries where I had already felt clueless.
- Social media: I don’t think I’ll ever regret not waiting my turn to get the perfect “Instagram picture” while abroad. I focused more on capturing architecture than angles and got to laugh to myself at people. I looked like a doofus with a ridiculous smile in every photo which is very accurate and the best type of visual memory to hold.
This whole trip was so incredible through the stressful moments and the wonderful ones. I have some serious post-trip depression but happy I get to return to a job in destination marketing where I have to continuously be aware of travel trends and news. Besides Paris, I was able to hit spots without over tourism issues (on purpose due to moral dilemma) and I really want to continue this type of travel. I’m in no hurry to leave again but endlessly excited to continue thinking back on all that I’ve seen and learned. I’m also really excited to not only have to choose from ketchup or paprika flavored chips. That’s a wrap on this weird journey.