Monday, November 26, 2012

40 pounds Heavier in 7 hours

Ok, continuing on our European journey thru Belgium and Amsterdam.

So this is how I was feeling as we waited for our Amsterdam train :(
 
I described on our last post the actual flight and the great conversation I had with Georgie, the awesome lady from Belgium that I met on the flight from New York to Brussels.
So, the first impression when arriving in Brussels was that we were 40 pounds heavier, and EVERYBODY smoked, even before we got out of the luggage carousel area, smoke filled that air, and I don't think I had felt that since sometime in the late 80's, not indoors anyway.
See, we didn't actually ate like pigs and gained 40 pounds each on the flight from New York to Brussels, but everyone was so much thinner in Brussels, that we felt so much fatter...instantly... :(
The Brussels Airport felt a bit small to me, it was like we were landing in Ribeirao Preto, a city in the state of Sao Paulo, it really didn't fell like the capital of Europe.
The Airport was nice, don't get me wrong, everything was functional, clean, modern, I think I just had the wrong expectation regarding the size of the Airport and the city.
By the way, there was a great train station right under the Airport where you could choose between the ubber expensive "Thalys", the fast train, or the regular train.

This is the Thalys, not the train we took
 
Our options were, 200 Euros a piece for a one way ticket from Brussels to Amsterdam or 90 Euros each on the regular train. The difference was 30 minutes sooner arrival in Amsterdam, so we passed, decided to try the "Thalys" on a longer journey when time and comfort justified. The trip between Brussels and Amsterdam is about 2 hours on the regular train (our option) and 1:30 minutes on the "Thalys" .


The spacious Thalys, definitely our choice on the next European trip
 
As a travel trip I must say that after a little research I realized that the Thalys can be a lot cheaper if you buy in advance, depending on the day and how far in advance we could have paid as little as half the price for a nice, quick Thalys trip from Brussels to Amsterdam, the problem was that we were flying into Brussels to catch the train to Amsterdam and the Thalys does not change tickets and does not refund if you are late. Long story short, if your flight is late, you miss your train and has no recourse for a refund, we were flying American Airlines and our odds at being late were too great, it turns out we were right, our flight was 3 hours late leaving New York and we would have wasted 200 Euros if we had purchased the Thaly's tickets in advance.
Gil and I bought this awesome little" backpacks" at Ikea, I know what you are thinking,  I am a big critic of Ikea, but the darn store is growing on us :)
What I love the most about it is the durability, and flexibility of this compact backpack on wheels, plus the hidden pull out handle, and a zipper attachment on the outside for your laptop. You can't beat it for under 100 bucks.
We always try to fly without any checked luggage nowadays, principally if we have a connection, which is a certain way to be delayed or to loose luggage.
As soon as we arrived we headed to the underground train station and bought our tickets on the first train to Amsterdam.
Gilson always tells me how complicated trains can be in Europe, and my only experience with trains in Europe up to that point was in London and it was a breeze.
Well, think again my friends, Gilson was right, I had no idea how complicated trains in Europe can be, principally because they speak ENGLISH in London and I think that city is very tourist friendly, not the case elsewhere, train stations announcements are not in English.
However it was easy to find people who spoke English in Brussels (Airport), so we hoped on our train, which included a connection on a small town just outside of the Airport.
There were no direct trains from the Brussels Airport to Amsterdam, so we had to either take a city train to downtown Brussels, and then take our connection or take a train somewhere else where a train to Amsterdam was going to pass.
The train we caught at Brussels Airport was to a town called Machelen, Belgium, just outside of the Airport, a short 10 minutes and 2 stations down, from Machelen we would tke our connection train to Amsterdam.
Machelen is a suburb of Brussels, an old train platform that has been there for almost a century, again, cigarette smoke filled the air. I just couldn't stand it and we decided to walk away from the smoking crowd and wait for our train at the extreme end of the platform, where we could still watch the clock with the train's timetable.
Gilson was already having a coffee withdraw so I went down to the underground part of the station where you could find everything from coffee to newspapers and magazines, including hard porn magazines, yes, welcome to Europe, you are no longer in the land colonized by the Puritans!! ;)
I started to notice similarities with Brazil right away, not only on the station itself but in people's attitudes, Brazilians are way more influenced by European than we could ever dream.
When I went downstairs I saw the doors to the street and decided to take a peak out, I saw a couple of CAFE'S right across the street from the main entrance to the train station, so I decided to run over there and get Gilson's coffee from a CAFE instead of the train station vendors.
I ran across the street and it turns out both CAFE'S were still closed and guess what, at a closer look, they were not the CAFE we are thinking of, they were places dedicated to strip tease shows and old man smoking themselves to death, ugh, no coffee.
Got back into the station and bought Gilson some great EXPRESSO coffee from one of the vendors, great quality coffee by the way, and no Starbucks, YAY!
Our train tickets to Amsterdam said 10:37am. Many trains were coming and going and we were paying attention as the station clock approached 10:37am, not understanding the language made me a little tense and with a felling I was missing something.
Neither of us speak or understand FLEMISH, or FRENCH, which are the languages spoken on the station's speakers and written everywhere in Belgium.
I started to have flashbacks to my trip to Budapest when I couldn't understand a thing anyone said and couldn't read anything anywhere, frustrating to say the least. I guess now I understand how frustration it must be for some of you folks moving to Brazil and not speaking or understanding a word of Portuguese... :(

10:37am comes around and NO TRAIN anywhere to be found!
I started telling Gilson: See! Aren't Europeans supposed to be on time? 10:40am and no Amsterdam train yet!!!
Something must be wrong, the station was empty by now, with the exception of a couple of American tourists carrying around the exact same backpack we bought at Ikea, HA, lol, we also suspected they were Americans because they came near us to escape the cloud of cigarette smoke towards the middle of the platform... and then we heard them speaking! ;)
At around 10:45am, other trains started to come into the station and other people were hoping in and out of them, but none of them said AMSTERDAM on them, so we stayed put and I started to panic, there were all kinds of announcements on the station's speaker, but we couldn't understand ANYTHING they were saying :(
Around 11:00am, I decided to go look for someone and ask where our Amsterdam train went!!
I found a gentleman wearing "TRAIN STATION UNIFORM LOOKING CLOTHES", so I asked him if he knew what happened to our 10:37am train from MACHELEN to AMSTERDAM and this were his exact words, in perfect ENGLISH:

Train station gentleman's answer:  
  
I "THINK" the 10:37am train's engine wasn't working too well this morning when I saw it at central train depot!

I thanked the polite gentleman and went back to Gilson to brake the news to him.
So I tell Gilson the train station worker told me, OUR TRAIN'S motor wasn't working too well this morning, and he wasn't sure if that train was coming at all.
He also told me we could "try" and catch the 11:37am train to Amsterdam, because he knew THAT one was operating normally and it had no "ENGINE" trouble.


WHAT!!!!!!!

Are you kidding me! I was fuming, what the hell kind of train system are they running here! They desperately need skilled operations managers in Belgium, and I was ranting away, fuming mad...UGH!!! Because we would be late to meet our friends in Amsterdam for lunch.
A meeting 23 years in the making. More details about that in the near future.
What do you mean! YOU THINK... the train had engine trouble!!!! Either it had or not! What the hell! Just too weird!
I told Gilson I wasn't gonna be able to wait until our LUNCH in Amsterdam with our friends to eat. I got an awesome little sandwich at the train station and tried to cool off a bit.
At 11:37am sharp, our train showed up at the station....we had been staying away from the cigarette smoke in the center of the station, so when the train stopped we entered the last train car, the one right in front of us.
Let me tell you one thing, I was not impressed, at all, the train car we walked in was spacious, but very old, think "ORANGE FORMICA" on the walls with dark red vinyl seats, but it was clean and comfortable, good enough for me, but again, not impressed.
However, to my surprise, we had gotten into the FIRST CLASS car by mistake, it happens when you don't understand the language or the rules.
So when we showed the "ticket taker" our regular (Economy Class) tickets he got all tense and told us we were in the wrong car, he said that in Dutch/Flemish first, and after my startled look of oblivion, he explained it again in perfect English, that we were sitting in FIRST CLASS when we were supposed to be sitting in the 2nd Class cars.
OMG!! Really!! This is FIRST CLASS!!!!!
I was thinking the old ORANGE FORMICA FIRST CLASS train car was so so, and got scared to think what would 2nd class look like!!! :(
It turns out, 2nd class wasn't so bad after all, it was just a little tight, and super crowded, because we later found out, there was no engine trouble what so ever. Trains were on strike, so all passengers from the 10:37am train got jammed up into the 11:37am train which was already half full.
We just happened to land in Belgium in the middle of a HUGE fight between government and the people for a hike in taxes, YES, a HIKE in taxes. Both in Belgium and the Netherlands.
The Dutch actually pays 19% income tax, and their government have just approved an income tax hike to 21%, so all hell broke loose, and the trains were on strike.
That is when I get really mad, they pay 19% in taxes now and get UNIVERSAL HEALTH CARE, among many other nice amenities.
We pay a hell of a lot more taxes and go broke if we get cancer and have no health insurance! Europeans were constantly asking us WHY oh WHY Americans are against universal health care, they just don't get it, and never will, because contrary to what we hear in the US, universal health care is really good in Europe.
So, back to our main topic, the trains were NOT MALFUNCTIONING, but I think the polite railroad worker gentleman didn't want to be so blunt, so he made up a story on the spot, now the weird phrase " I "THINK" the 10:37am train's motor wasn't working too well this morning when I saw it at the main train depot!"  made more sense.
According to Gilson trains around Europe are quite nicer and more spacious, what happens here is that the trains between Brussels and Amsterdam are almost like city trains, because the two cities are actually very close to each other.
We really enjoyed the ride to Amsterdam, it's amazing to see how these people, both the Belgian and the Dutch take advantage of the flat geography to use bicycles as an efficient and healthy mode of transportation, not just within their cities, but from the train we could see nicely paved and well signaled bike lanes all over the country side, going thru the woods, next to beautiful lakes and rivers, connecting one little town to the other, all lined with trees providing shade to the riders, really really nice.
Sorry, but I still hadn't taken any pictures up to this part of the trip, were were still trying to get over the fact of how FAT we looked compared to everyone else around us, plus the language barrier and the train confusion, pictures were not a priority for us up to that point.


Amsterdam HERE WE COME!!!

:)


To be continued shortly!!!!  :)


Ray

6 comments:

Alex said...

hahahahah

It's true, Europeans are very healthy. I don't completely understand it though....in Italy, the young people were semi-anorexic but they ate LIKE PIGS. I guess it's because they walk around a lot (like in Brasil) but not like the US.

Sounds like a fun/frustrating journey!

American Heart Brazilian Soul said...

Alex,

It was a little frustrating, but I concentrated in observing the beauty of the countryside and trying to learn more about the people and their culture.
The journey to get to Amsterdam was definitely a bumpy road, but mostly because of the general strike going on at the time of our arrival.


Abracos
Ray

Charlotte said...

As a Belgian, living in Brussels and planning to move to Brasil in the near future, your stories are relatable, but in an other-point-of-view kinda way! I'm certainly going to keep on reading your blog, curious about your european adventures :) And I'm so sorry for you that you arrived on a day of train strike! We've had a lot of those in the latest two years... it's frustrating enough when you actually speak the language and try to get some information, so I imagine you must have suffered in that mini-station of Machelen.

American Heart Brazilian Soul said...

Dear Charlotte,

Thank you so much for your comment, it's great to hear from you.
We LOVED Belgium so much we would move to your country in a New York minute. We went to Amsterdam on our first day but we rented a car and drove back to Belgium after we met our friends in Holland.
Bruges, Ghent and Brussels!! Needless to say that we died and went to heaven in Bruges! I will write all about it soon.
:)
Hey, if you have any questions about Brazil please feel free to write us about it, we will be glad to share information with you.

Our email: sbcspbr@gmail.com

Abracao

Ray

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