You always hear about people doing amazing things while they study abroad, but you never really expect to do them. Especially not when you started out the week binging most of New Girl while snacking on peppers and humus in your tiny dorm room.
For those who know me, you know I like to stay in most nights and just chill out. I usually prefer being home to being out and I hate staying out late. For those who don’t know me, don’t worry about it, I’m kind of a drag. I prefer a good book to a bar and if you gave me the choice between a movie night at home and a night out on the town, I’d already be in my pajamas popping popcorn. My mom says youth is wasted on the young, and when it comes to me, she couldn’t be more right.
You get the idea.
Now lose that idea.
Because this weekend was different.
On Friday, I went out. My Irish friend Aoife and I joined my Russian friend Dasha and we set off for the agreed-upon meeting place outside the Palais des Beaux-Arts. We met our friends Suna and Chrysa at the metro stop and we plotted ways to break into the huge party that was clearly going on at the Palais while we waited for more people to arrive. My plan was to dress Aoife as the resurrected Princess Diana and for the rest of us, who were dressed in black, to pretend to be her security. Chrysa’s plan was to kidnap the waiters and steal their uniforms. Suna’s idea was to take the phone of a man who had just left the party and use it to send ourselves a text that would get us in. We were waiting for a long time.
Finally, my friend Jorge arrived with the rest of our friends, including his friend Julia from Mexico. We were going to meet her friends at a nearby bar for beers before we went to the main event. Dasha made a sick burn about Italians always being late, but she was right, because the Italians told us they would be an hour and a half late so we set off to the bar.
I had never actually been to a bar with that many people before, because as I stated before, I was a sack of potatoes in comfy socks when I was in the states. But on Friday, every single one of us ordered the same beer and we all learned how to say “cheers” in about six different languages. But about half an hour into it, the bartender refused to let Julia’s friends in because the bar was too full. Everybody downed what was left of their drinks and we finally set out.
Now while we’re walking the streets in your mind, let me explain something to you.
This group of people had just met that week. The majority of us were classmates in our French intensive course, so it was really strange that we were all getting along so well. I mean, you’ve been in a class. Can you imagine being such good friends with every person in the class that you’d agree to go out to drinks together on a Friday night after only one week? We had just met Julia that night, and we had yet to meet her friends until we stepped out of the bar, but we were all chatting like old friends as we walked down the streets of a place we’d never been.
I never want to hear another word about how antisocial humans have become.
Anyway, we arrived after a pretty short walk. We all had only had one beer, but we were all so excited to start that we already felt buzzed. We were the first people to arrive in the club, and I swallowed my tidbit of information that in Lille, very few clubs open before midnight.
But we didn’t care, because Jorge, Julia, and friends from Mexico were going to teach us how to salsa.
In Catholic school, I learned a lot of dances that I don’t remember anymore. I learned to cha-cha, do the cha-cha slide, do the electric slide, and the cupid shuffle. I took a free swing dance class once. I love to dance. I dance at weddings every chance I get, and I loved going to prom and homecoming. I hate learning the dances because I know I look silly but salsa took about thirty seconds to learn, and a minute to master. Almost as soon as we arrived, everybody was dancing and as more people arrived, our definition of salsa loosened and soon we were all free-styling to Despacito. At midnight, Aoife and I had to leave before the metro closed so we led a small group back to the station after a lot of long good-byes and cheek-kissing and promises to text the group chat as soon as we made it home.
And make it home we did, which is good because the next morning we got up around 7:30 to go to the metro at 8 to be at the bus stop in Lille by 8:30 to go to Ghent, Belgium. All the pictures are in this week’s Through the Lens post so I’ll let you find that when you’re done here.
Aoife and I met our friends Suna, Chrysa, Marilena, Monique, and Lucia’s friend whose name I can’t spell but can definitely pronounce and we all boarded the 8:30 AM bus right on time.
It’s a one-hour bus ride between Lille and Ghent and I spent every second of it thinking about how weird everything looked compared to America. Up until that point, I was pretty used to the city being different from Atlanta, I mean they’re different cities. That’s to be expected. What I did not anticipate was that the land itself would look so different.
First off, everything is flat. And there is a lot of farmland surrounding little groups of houses, usually with a church included. The trees are skinny because they’re different trees and sparse because it’s winter, so the whole effect between the flatness and the bareness and the fog was otherworldly.
We got off the bus and were immediately accosted by the cold. None of us had expected it to be that cold, even though we’d checked the weather before we left. We met a group of Argentinians who had just stepped off the bus with us, and we all set out together. I had an app that designed tour guides you could take yourself around any city in Europe, so we followed it to the center of the city and explored. We saw historic monuments, colorful alleyways crowded with Saturday morning shoppers, cathedrals whose spires seemed to see something we could, and castles standing watch along the river. We shopped a little at the Friday Market Square and laughed about a Friday market being open on a Saturday. Lucia’s friend bought the best French fries I have ever tasted in my life. We planned to see and eat as much as possible before we had to leave that night.
Of course, we had to get waffles. The whole day was a search for interesting things to look at and waffles to eat.
The first thing I noticed while we walked around was the river, and the buildings all along it. I couldn’t believe a place like that, so beautiful and serene and yet so ordinary existed, and that I was there. I kept asking my friend Suna if we were really there, in Belgium, walking around like we were there. It was wild.
We stumbled into a museum, the Museum of Decorative Arts and Design, expecting some antique furniture or a few classical paintings or something. The Argentinians decided to strike off on our own, so it was down to our small group of classmates. We walked into the mercifully warm lobby and saw nothing unusual. Marble mantles, chandeliers, painted ceilings, hardwood floors. We bought our tickets and walked into the first room, where we immediately understood that this was not at all a museum of furniture, paintings, or decorations of any sort. There were three hardwood-floored chandeliered levels, all covered with robots, interactive games, videos playing from projectors, and demonstrations all over the room. There was a robot that would respond to the sound of your voice, shaking in fear or raising its little head in interest. There was a robot that wrote out manifestos of robotics in pen, which you could collect when it was done. There was a long hallway of posters asking questions that could give the abbot of a monastery an existential crisis. The whole experience was totally strange and none of us were prepared for it. We looked at every single thing before we reluctantly stepped back out into the cold.
We walked along the river to take pictures, stopped into a Belgian McDonald’s (called Giant) for lunch, and went searching for more interesting things to look at. We didn’t have to go very far, since everything was around the same city center. We walked through the university, where there were big owls and birds graffiti’d on the walls leading to an office. We watched a man outside the cathedral blow bubbles for the children, and honestly stayed around to pop a few ourselves. We walked until we finally gave in and found a café so warm, the windows were steamed up. We sat there and talked and planned more trips outside France (namely to Amsterdam, the plan for which I have nicknamed the Amsterplan) and told jokes in our native languages until it closed, and we left in earnest to find a waffle.
In Belgium and in France, waffles are called gaufres. And they are everywhere. French gaufres are smaller, and Belgian gaufres are a lot more like what you think a waffle should look like. We found a nice gaufre stand near the city square and of course we all had to get one. Naturally, mine had Nutella on it. And it was heaven. I’m telling you, there’s nothing like sharing a gaufre with a good friend in a strange country on a cold night.
After we finished our gaufres, we had a bit of trouble getting back to the bus stop. Our Google Maps took us down residential streets, across busy roads with no sidewalks, and over a bridge to a dark construction site until we finally realized we were heading in the wrong direction. Frozen, tired, but full of sugar, we stumbled to the bus stop and reunited with the Argentinians, who reported similar issues getting back to the bus stop but had the foresight to wait for the bus inside the bus station rather than in the parking lot with everyone else, like we did. When the bus finally came, we all got on and promptly fell asleep.
It was absolutely the most insane weekend of my life. Salsa is my new favorite sport and Belgian waffles are the best I’ve ever tasted. Next time you give me the choice between staying in and going out, I might think a little less.