I tried to book a train to Paris from Amsterdam in the morning, but they were all booked. The earliest thing that they had was 9pm leaving out of Brussels. This is what I was told by the lady working in the Train station in Amsterdam. I'm almost embarrassed to say why this confused me so much. I said to her "I'd like a ticket to Paris". Her reply was "The first thing we have is a train out of Brussels at 9pm". The first thought in my head is "Where the heck is Brussels". I really couldnít have shown on a map where Amsterdam was, so even if I knew where Brussels was (which I didnít) it wouldnít have helped. Shyly, I asked "Where's Brussels?". She replies "In Belgium". No help there. So, I just come out and say it. "Listen, I have no idea where that is. Is it a 10 minute cab ride? A 5 hour flight? How do I get there? Where is it". She told me all I needed to do was catch any train leaving from Amsterdam on track 12, at 24 minutes after the hour, and it will take me to Brussels. Trip time was about 3 hours. Ok, I cleared that up.
I caught the next one as it was about 10:15, and the 10:24 train would get me in with enough time to see Brussels for a bit, and then catch my connection. The 10:24 train arrives at 10:24 and leaves at 10:24. It was about as methodical as a subway. Usually, you expect passenger trains to make a stop for about 5 minutes to let people on and off. Not this one. Well, the train became unusually packed after about 1.5 hours. There were people packed in the aisle, and no one could move. There was luggage everywhere. Mine was on my lap, as there was NO room anywhere else.
When I arrived in Brussels, I was all alone, and a little confused. No one there spoke English. None at all. They seemed to speak a derivation of French, but my one semester of French in college didnít help much. All I wanted was a cash machine. No dice. I all could get from people was that there was no cash machine anywhere. I went out of the train station to look for one. I walked for about an hour with my full pack on (about 50-70lbs) and it was taking its toll. I decided to head back to the train station. Once in the station, I again tried to ask for directions to a cash machine, but no one knew where one was. I began to read "Mr. Nice", but after an hour or so, began to itch to get out of there. I searched everywhere for somewhere to change money, and finally found an English speaking guy who pointed me in the right direction. After changing my Dutch guilders in to Belgian Francs, I had enough cash to get a locker to stuff my big pack in to, and get a slice of pizza and a coke. Giddyup.
The pizza place was actually quite a momentous event for me. The lady had asked me if I wanted the pizza to go, and I said "Non, ici, si vous plait". That means "No, for here, please". I had no idea how I remembered that, or why it came out in French (which for all purposes was the same as Belgique). I was pretty shocked, but very happy. The crazy thing is that from this day until about the next week, there would be many situations like this, most of which would make me recall my French teachers voice in my head.
Later, I headed out to walk around Brussels. I didnít go far, as I didnít want to miss my train to Paris. The only impression I have of Brussels is that it was dirty. Thatís pretty unfair, because if a visitor to Washington DC were to walk out of the DC station for about an hour, they'd likely have the same impression. So, in fairness, I didnít see enough of Brussels to get a feel for it. What I did notice is that there were almost NO traffic lights, and about 30 places where they could have used them. It was just a driving free-for-all at the intersections. No real order to any of it. Anyway, it was raining and cold as I was walking around, which made me not want to walk to long.
Eventually, I wandered in to a neighborhood where all the storefronts had some type of Arabic writing on them and all the people I saw had a slight resemblance to the nationality of those burning our flag on the news in protest of the Iraq bombings. I immediately recalled the "Lets Go" guide mentioning that Brussels was known for being the centerpoint for NATO activity, and figured that being an American, in this neighborhood, in this town, during this time wasnít too safe and pretty much walked as fast as I could out of there. I spent the next couple hours waiting for my train in the station, and got most the way through my book.
My train to Paris came, and I was about the only one on it. I had a feeling that the last 3 that I could have caught were not booked. All the same, it was now 9pm, and I was on a high speed train to Paris. When you're over 25, the rail-pass people will not let you get the student pass, and you have to buy a first class pass. At first I was upset about this, but after my first ride in a big comfy leather seat that had a power reclining button, this all changed. I was loving this train. I was spread out, reading, writing in my book, and Iíd be in Paris in like 2 hours. Oh, and they served dinner, like on planes.
next it was on to.....