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Wednesday, November 16, 2005

London and Brussels 2005

Friday 4 November

I ended up staying home from work, even though I had originally planned to go
in for the first part of the day. The plane left at 1:30 from BWI. We had wanted
to take British Airways, and I definitely would have preferred it for a couple
of reasons. One, we would have had a direct flight back. Two, we would have left
later in the day (like 8:45pm). Three, we would have laid over in London and not
Chicago. Four, American Airlines sucks. They didn't offer free liquor on the transatlantic
flight. How cheap is that? Even United offered free liquor on a transatlantic
flight. Still, the legroom was nice. Trip to Chicago uneventful. Once we got to
Chicago, we sought out pizza. We got fast food pizza and starbucks. I had Pumpkin
Spice Latte. Yum. On the Brussels flight, pretty much everyone was Belgian. I
guess not many Americans go to Brussels for vacation. We watched The Fantastic
Four and The Notebook. The Fantastic Four was ok, and I had already seen The Notebook.
Sitting in front of the bulkhead was not as bad as I had been expecting, nor was
sitting near the bathroom. The good part about it was that I could watch to see
when the bathroom was vacant and jump up and go.

Saturday 5 November

We arrived in Brussels at around 8:30am. We got our luggage, train tickets,
and headed out on the train. The train took around 25 minutes and let us out
at Gare Centrale. It was a pretty easy walk to the Hotel Mozart, and checking
in to the hotel was not a problem.

The hotel was cozy. It was on Rue Marche des Fromages (Cheese Market Street),
which I thought was a weird name until a few days later when we learned that
the central part of the city around the Grand Place was once a big market. At
the market, vendors were sectioned off by what they sold (cheese, bacon, tomatoes,
eggs, whatever) and the street names around are reflective of this. Kinda cool.
Anyway, the street was filled with italian and greek restaurants, which was
a good cheap place to eat. It seemed like Belgians walk in the street unless
a car comes along and the sidewalks are full of tables for the cafes. Our room
was small and sort of dark, but nice and comfortable.

After we showered and such, we headed out. We went to one of the greek restauarants
for lunch. I had a big pile of meat with a salad and some other stuff. We both
also tried Hoegaarden beer. It's wheat beer and very yummy. We went down to
the Grand Place to have a look around and had a little bit of chocolate from
Neuhaus. We picked up a Brussels Card, which was 30 Euros and gave us free entry
into a bunch of museums and sights and also allowed us to ride as much transport
as we wanted for as long as we were there.

Next, we walked around sort of in an aimless manner and strolled up to the
Cathedral of St. Michael and St.
Gudula
. We wandered around there, I lit some candles, and we explored the
crypt. The crypt really wasn't a crypt, it was the base of the Cathedral from
when the church was first built.

Upon leaving the church, we saw a waffle truck. Yes, they do indeed sell them on
the street and out of the side of VW buses.

Then, we found a sign that said "Museum" so we thought oh good! A museum!!
Something to pass the time while we make it through our jetlag induced haze.
Sadly, the museum was the Belgian Banking Museum and was boring as hell. We
learned about money. And banks. And finances. And such. It seemed to require
not only a knowledge of, but also a fervor for banks, money, and the government
of Belgium. We had not any of this. I mean, I know about money. But, how much
can you really put in a museum about money? So, we left and went back to the
hotel and took about a 45 minute nap. It was glorious.

We next found the Mannekin Pis. Ah, the cute little statue. He was NOT dressed
up, but it is so obvious that Belgians have a GREAT and very Kim-like sense
of humor. I thought the whole thing was hilarious. We walked around some more,
had a waffle, found a
couple churches, part of the Senne river that was buried (there is a river that
runs through Brussels, but they buried it in the 1800s). Then, we went to 't
Kelderke
for dinner. It was in a cellar off of the Grand Place and had GREAT
Belgian food. I had moules au gratin (Mussels baked in a cream sauce and covered
in cheese). Dave had stoemp, which is like mashed potatoes, but they're flavored
with Bacon and some other stuff. His stoemp came with sausages and frites (french
fries). We also had Kriek,
which is beer flavored with cherries.

One interesting thing about the beers
in Belgium is that the beer makers make glasses for their beers and you're supposed
to only serve that beer in that glass. Some of them are more like wine glasses.
My favorite was Kwak,
which I didn't try, but it is served in a funny shaped glass that is in a wooden
stand. Then, back to the hotel for bed since we were very very sleepy.

Sunday 6 November

Our hotel served breakfast, so we got up in time to partake. We had a traditional
continental breakfast: croissant with jam, a slice of dark bread with butter
and cheese, and tea. Yum and surprisingly quite filling. We wandered down to
the Brussels
museum
and spent some time there learning the history of Brussels (as best
we could, since the museum was in dutch and french). We
then visited the Musical Instruments Museum, saw the King's Palace, and had
lunch at an Italian Restaurant. Later, we went back up to the Kings Palace to
visit the Bellvue Museum. It showed the history of Belgium and was quite interesting.
It was late when we got there - the museum closed at 5 and we arrived around
4:15. The guy working there said that the museum itself took an hour and the
older city stuff underneath the museum took 30 minutes. He kind of scolded us
for being so late and suggested that we only go to the museum itself. Well,
we're pro museum people!! We saw the museum in a half hour and the old stuff
in about 15 minutes, making it out right at 5. Ha to him. We were trying to
get everything in that day since most of the museums were closed on Mondays.



At some point during the day, I had another waffle. Waffles are incredible.
They're different than "belgian" waffles in the US. You can carry them in your
hand and they have a crusty sugar outer coating. They're made with dough and
not batter. They're AWESOME. I need to get me some more, because I'm missing
them.

Dinner was on the Ilot Sacre, which
is where many restaurants are located. We sat next to a very nice Canadian couple
who are currently living in London. We talked a lot about London and Brussels
and the fact that people hate Americans. I ate moules marinare (basically, boiled
musssels) and prawns with a glass of Kriek. It was all tasty. We also found
the Jeanneke Pis, which
is the female vesrion of Manneken Pis. Later, there was more waffles and then
to bed.

Monday 7 November

We started our day heading over to the Gare du Midi to find the Cantillon 
Brewery. They make lambic
beer, which is super-strong and a lot like Champagne. We had some trouble finding
it, but eventaully we found it. They were brewing the next day, so on the day
we were there, they were crushing the hops, barley and wheat tha they use to
make the beer. It was pretty interesting to just walk around the brewery while
they were doing all of this stuff (and would not be found in the US for fear
of lawsuits - we could have definitely gotten hurt had we been stupid). We tasted
the beer, both the framboise (raspberry) beer and the Geuze. It was pretty nasty.
A lot like really strong urine. Blech. Dave liked it and purchased 3 bottles
(!).

We had lunch at a Quick in the train
station. They are a french fast food place and their food sucks. They're maybe
the equivalent of UMBC Pub Food. Although, I think I'd rather eat at the now
non-existent UMBC Pub to be perfectly honest.

Then,
we took a tram over to Autoworld, which was basically a car museum. We were
two of maybe four people in the whole place. We wandered through the gardens
there and then I saw a parade! Hoping for waffles, I said to Dave that I really
wanted to go down there. As we got closer, we realized that it was not a parade,
but a political demonstration. Apparently, the muslim residents of belgium (or
of somewhere) were marching to protest the Mullahs in Iran. Since we were only
a few blocks from the EU, they were marching between there and European Parliament.
It was a little scary, and we decided to get away from it. No waffles.

We had dinner in the same place that we had dinner on Saturday night. This
time, I had what was essentially chicken stew. I was wearing a heavy fleece
shirt and it was hot in there, and I was eating hot stew. I got really hot and
started feeling really sick (and I was apparently quite flushed). I felt better
once I got out into the fresh air again. We found an internet cafe and I talked
to Mary over IM as she was getting ready to leave. Then, we went back to the
hotel to relax and pack up for the upcoming trip to London.

Tuesday 8 November

Off to London!
Our train departed Gare du Midi at around 8 in the morning. We had no particular
issues, except with the UK Customs person who thought that saying "hi!"
was rude apparently. He didn't particularly like Americans. I can't blame him,
but he also needs to realize that the real American idiots wouldn't
be taking a trip overseas. So, screw him. I then proceeded to fall asleep for
the vast majority of the train ride. And since people keep asking what the Channel
Tunnel was like... it was a dark tunnel. I didn't see much of it though, since
I was staring at the inside of my eyelids.

The London Underground is very easy to navigate. I think it is by far the easiest
public transportation system to use (or at least the easiest that I've been
on). We found our way to our
flat
quite easily, and had a little more trouble on foot. Still, we made
it there on time. The Coach
House
rep was waiting for us. She gave us the keys, had us sign something,
and basically explained everything we needed to know. Mary and Nick arrived
just as she was leaving. Dave and I went down to Picadilly Circus to get our
London Passes (same as Brussels card, but more expensive). Meanwhile Nick &
Mary washed up and such.

Then, we had lunch at the Fox & Hounds, which was a pub right down the
street from our flat. we had bangers & mash and a Guiness (well, Dave had
Strongbow). We then walked down to Harrod's and shopped around for a while (nobody
bought anything, but we did get to taste some cheese). Then, we went down to
Westminster Pier to see parliament and such.

Kim: What Underground stop?

Mary: Westminster.

Kim: Ah. Cranberry Mall.

Dave: Applebees.


Kim: Texas Roadhouse.

Dave: Olive Garden.

Kim: McDaniel College.

We had dinner in another pub near Westminster. I tried steak and kidney pie
and found that it tasted like... dogfood. Blech. I ate it anyway, but it was
full o'nast. I had Guiness & Cider, which they were calling a snakebite
as they do at J. Patrick's. I had a sticky toffee pudding for dessert and Nick
had spotted
dick
. We made spotted dick jokes for the rest of the trip. Then, we headed
back to the flat to relax & watch some BBC.

Wednesday 9 November

We got up and lounged around a bit, watched a BBC show where people basically go
to eastern Eurpopean and other bizarre countries and try to buy vacation homes
for cheap. We wandered on down to the British Museum and saw the Rosetta Stone,
the parthenon stuff, and you know, artifacts. I learned 2 things there...

  1. The British take EVERYTHING. They steal it and they keep it for themselves.
    If you let the British into your country, they will steal your stuff.
    Don't think that they won't, because they will.
  2. Don't mess with centaurs. Centaurs are really mean. Apparently there was
    a big centaur problem in ancient Greece, because there were tons of pictures
    of them beating the living hell out of people. Centaurs are really
    evil and bad.

We had lunch in a Thai restaurant near the British Museum. It was tasty, but
expensive. Well, everything was expensive. We stayed there entirely too long
and then left to go to St. Paul's Cathedral. We got there a bit late and it
was starting to close. It was gorgeous inside, but we couldn't take photos.
There are plenty of people buried in the crypt, including Admiral Nelson, Christopher
Wren & the Duke of Wellington. There is also, disturbingly, toilets and
a gift shop down there.

All of us climbed to the top of the Cathedral, but it was rough. Dave, Nick
and I made it to the very topmost observation deck. I was proud of myself for
being so not out of breath. Sure, I was a little way at the top, but
for the most part, I was fine. It was just a little scary on the last section
that was metal steps with little holes in them. I had to keep saying "I
climb walls. This is not that high. I climb walls. I am fine." Heights
are scary. Anyway, it was a great view from the top, even if we couldn't stay
there very long because it was closing. I got my first view of the "Erotic
Gherkin
," which is a weird fallic shaped building in London. As I'm
sure you can imagine, I became obsessed with the Erotic Gherkin.

We went to a nearby Starbuck's and I enjoyed a Toffee Nut Latte. I had to use
a public toilet and the paper was tissue paper. Not toilet paper, but seriously
the stuff you put in gift bags. I mean, it was white and all, it didn't have
pictures of roses on it, but it was HARD. I had to grab a couple sheets to show
Mary, Nick and Dave. We checked our email in an internet cafe located in a Burger
King off of Picadilly Circus and then had dinner in an American Themed restaurant.
That food was ok. We took some time to explore Chinatown, which we found totally
by accident. Nick and I were really looking for desserts, but we didn't find
one and ended up just getting some Haagen Dazs at the grocery store across from
our flat and eating that. Mmmm.

Thursday 10 November

We watched the vacation
home buying show on the BBC again. Wednesday, it had been a remote part of Turkey.
This time, it was somewhere even more bizarre, but I forget where. Then, it
was off to Westminster Abbey... which was not open because they were holding
some sort of service. So, off to the Tower
of London
. I thought that the Tower of London was unreal looking. It just
didn't look like a real place to me and I was having to suspend my disbelief.
I mean, I know it's all historical and it's been there forever, but it really
reminded me of the Excalibur Hotel in Las Vegas. I mean, from the outside. There
were no slot machines there or anything. We got a tour from a Beefeater.
We saw the crown jewels, and I got my first look at the Palace
Guards
. They stand so straight and tall, I really wanted to lick one. I
really really did. I wonder what the consequences are for licking a palace guard??
I'm going to have to ask around. Actually, I have asked around and found out
that no one really knows. Could I have potentially been the first person to
lick one (had I actually done it)? Fear of arrest kept me from licking them.

We had lunch in the cafe at the Tower and then crossed out to see the Tower
Bridge. It was fun to go up into the Bridge and learn about it, but more fun
were the little interactive speaker things. They had buttons that you could
press to make the automated tour guide speak different languages. Dave and I
had fun with that one.

We traveled next to the Monument.
It was built to commemorate the great fire of 1666. We climbed all the way to
the top and got a special certificate for completing it. It was a nice view
from the top. Dinner was in an Indian Restaurant near the London
Eye
. We had tickets for the 8pm London Eye flight. This was my favorite
part of the trip. It was really interesting to ride to the top and since we
were going so late in the off season, we almost had our pod to ourselves.

Friday 11 November

Mary and
Nick were up earlier than us and our alarm had just gone off when the fan in
our room shut off. Hm, this was odd. I could hear Nick and Mary yelling about
something. Apparently the circuit breaker had flipped off. Nick found it and
got it back on, but then there was no hot water. Try as we might, we were unable
to figure out how to get the hot water working. We called the Coach House Rental
place and they said that they could possibly come by that evening. Still, Dave
and I did not get showers.

Anyway, it was tour day! We were up bright and early to meet our tour company
at 7:55am. We were scheduled to take the Salisbury, Stonehenge and Bath tour,
but it wasn't running and they failed to tell us until we got there. So, instead
of Salisbury, we went to Windsor Castle. Our tour guide was Clarissa and she
was incredibly cute. Dave and I were riding in the front seats, which was an
experience.

Windsor was very pretty. We walked around, saw the sights. We weren't allowed
to take pictures inside, of course. Typical. Still, we got to see the tombs
of Henry VIII and a bunch of other dead kings and queens. We picked up some
cookies from a market that was on the street there and then headed on back to
the bus. We passed through some interesting places. We got to see the place
where the Magna Carta was signed, and we got to see the Ascot racetrack. There
were some sheep out and Clarissa said "Oh look! They've all gone galivanting
down to the hedgerow!" Funny.

We had lunch at the White Horse Inn. It had a thatched roof, which they had
just gotten replaced recently for 45,000 pounds ($95,000). That's crazy expensive!
Mary and I had fish & chips and Dave and Nick had beef and yorkshire pudding.
Back on to the bus and the next
stop was Stonehenge.

Stonehenge... I wasn't expecting to be very wowed by Stonehenge. I was actually
expecting to find it totally stupid, yet something that was a must see. I have
to say that while I still wasn't agape with wonder, I was at least happy that
I went. It is sort of weird because it is just kinda on the side of the road.
Like, you're driving and, Oh! there's stonehenge! While we were there, it was
maybe 40 degrees and the winds were blowing at maybe, oh, 85 miles per hour.
It was freezing cold. Still, we did our thing walking around and I got a souvenir
spoon with rocks on it in the shape of pi.

Our next and final stop was Bath. We had some water from the spring. The water
was disgusting. I tried to drink the whole glass, but I just couldn't get it
down. It's supposed to cure me of my ailments. Not sure if it has kicked in
yet or not. We toured the cathedral there and then had a dinner of pasties.
No, that's not the little things you put on your breasts, they are in fact a
lot like hot pockets. Mine had bacon, potato and leeks in it. It was yum. We
bought some chocolate fudge to eat on the bus on the way home before heading
into the Roman Baths.

The baths
were way cool! My only wish was that we could have actually gotten in. I was
feeling tired and that water would have felt good... even if it was full of
lead and radioactive, potentially poisonous. It would have been worth it! Dave
found a mystery coin and I don't know if he ever scraped the dirt off of it
to figure out exactly what it was. Then, we got back on the bus and got stuck
in traffic for a while before making it back to London. Mary, Nick and Dave
had dinner in a Burger King, I checked my email (I'm a friggin' addict) and
then we went back to the flat.

Saturday 12 November


Saturday, Dave and I had a tour to Leeds Castle, Dover, Canterbury and Greenwich.
Mary and Nick weren't on the tour and spent part of the day working on the hot
water situation. Since we had gotten back so late Friday night, we still had
no hot water and I ended up washing my hair in the cold water, but really couldn't
face getting all the way under. They had the hot water on by the time we got
back on Saturday, but Dave and I still didn't get full showers until Sunday.

Anyway, Leeds Castle was gorgeous! It had a golf course on the grounds, which
would be very pretty to play. They also had an aviary. There, we met a bird
named Oscar that could talk. The sign said that he said "hello." I
tried to talk to him. He didn't talk. I tried using a British accent. No good.
So, when we finally turned our backs, he said "hello! Hello, Oscar!"
He kept doing it. If you turned your back, he would talk.

We
had lunch on the cliffs of Dover at a restaurant called The Lighthouse. It was
very pretty to walk out on the cliffs. We had more fish & chips and a yummy
pudding. We drove through Dover, but didn't actually stop. Dover, I think, would
be somewhere that I would like to check out a little closer sometime.

Next stop was Canterbury. The city itself was very busy. It had a marketplace
that included a Gap, a McDonald's, a bunch of other stores... and the historic
Canterbury Cathedral. Yes, the Cathedral is surrounded by chain retail and fast
food places. We toured through it just like pilgrims, and just like old times
they charged us to take photos inside. In the gift shop, you could get Canterbury
Cathedral shot glasses. Does that strike anyone else as weird?? You could also
buy rosary beads, which makes a hell of a lot more sense.

Back to London. We went to Greenwich. Our driver dropped us at the top of Greenwhich
Park. We saw the observatory and the Prime Meridian, got some photos, and then
checked out the market in town. Guess who we ran into in the market? None other
than Mary and Nick! We agreed to meet them for dinner in Chinatown. Dave and
I then left on our Thames River Cruise, where we had champagne, tea and scones.
It was a nice trip, but very cold.

Dinner in Chinatown. It was PACKED. People everywhere. We picked a restaurant
pretty much at random and waited about 10 minutes for a table. Nick and I shared
a fixed price menu that included crispy duck, hot and sour soup, fried rice,
mixed veggies, crispy beef and kung pao chicken. Mary had curry prawns and Dave
had chicken with cashews. It was very tasty, but a little crazy. We wandered
back to the flat and ate more ice cream.

Sunday 13 November


Mary and Nick went on a tour of Oxford, Warwick Castle and the Cotswalds. So,
Dave and I had the day to ourselves. We used the morning to go down to the Cenotaph,
where there was a ceremony going on. The queen would be there! It was pretty
crowded and security was the tightest I'd ever seen. Then again, they need to
protect the queen.
We saw a parade of a lot of military bands. It was quite cool. However, we did
not get to see the queen. She was just too short and all of the military was
standing in front of her. We did get to see quite a processional of military
veterans. It lasted maybe an hour and a half, but that's a long time figuring
that we were so packed in that we couldn't move at all.

We
left there and went down to Hyde Park, where we ate lunch in a McDonald's and
then went to Speaker's
Corner
. Speaker's Corner is total weirness. Basically, you stand on a box
and just scream about stuff and people listen and argue with you. It happens
Sundays in Hyde Park. One guy was arguing about islam, one was talking about
the war, one was talking about how the trees still having leaves in November
was a sign of the apocolypse, one was talking evolution vs. creationism. Weird,
I'm telling you. If you're in London on a Sunday, I recommend stopping by just
to see the nutballs. I really and truly think that it's the equivalent of some
poor drunk wandering the streets of Washington DC screaming about how the world
is ending and to praise Jesus, except rather than people getting weirded out
and crossing to the other side of the street, people were listening and responding.

We strolled through Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens to Kensington Palace.
Most of the Princess Diana stuff was not out that day, but we still saw a lot
of rooms and it was quite pretty. Worth visiting. We went back to the flat and
then back out to King's Road nearby to have some Italian dinner. Mary and Nick
had returned when we got back to the flat and I proceeded to eat Swiss chocolate
(screw that Cadbury crap!) and shortbread cookies.

Monday 14 November


Our last real day in London. We saw, again, that BBC show about buying property
in other countries (this time it was Africa somewhere) and then went to Westminster
Abbey. Westminster Abbey is like visiting a cemetary, not a church. There are
just tons and tons and tons of people buried in there. We walked around and
toured it. Then, we had lunch in a cafeteria across the street where I had cheesy
tuna bake!

We wandered around Westminster and Whitehall, we saw Trafalgar Square and Buckingham
Palace. The palace wasn't open because it's only open, apparently in July and
August when the queen is living in Windsor Castle. So, we just stood at the
gates. I watched the guards and further pondered the consequences of licking
one. Then, these four police motorcycles showed up and a motorcade went by!
It was the queen!! Really, it just looked like an old lady in a car. But, still.

We
went to the Guard Museum, where I did not learn the consequences of licking
a guard. There seems to be no record of anyone licking one. We had a snack in
a cafe. I had the most fattening sandwich imaginable - brie and bacon. It was
really good though. We had tea and it was yummy. We decided we were really too
tired to see anymore, so we went back to the flat to rest up some.

For dinner, we found a place called Grumbles that Rick Steves recommended.
We went to find it - it was quite a walk, but then ended up eating at a pub
across the street. It was called the Constitution and it was cheap
and good. Too bad we found it on our last night. I had a roast lamb
and mint sauce and we had snakebites that were not snakebites like we know and
love. We think it was cider and lager, mixed with black currant juice. Still,
yum. I had two. Then, we went home and packed our stuff up and spent our last
night in the flat.

Tuesday 15 November

To home. Our car picked us up at 7am and took us to the airport. We said goodbye
to Mary and Nick, who were on a different flight, and had full English Breakfast
in the airport. I don't like black pudding. We shopped around and took our flight
back. I still don't like American Airlines. Changing planes in Chicago was a
pain because we had to claim our bags, go through customs, recheck our bags,
then go to the other terminal to get our flight back to Baltimore. Thankfully,
there was a half hour delay, which gave us extra time. We made it back to our
house at about 7pm Eastern time and I went to bed very early.


The end.
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