It would have been best if I wrote about this right after I arrived from my mini Euro trip while everything is still fresh in my mind (would have a lot more to say) but I will try my best to share with you what a wonderful experience it was and what a nice change it was! Also, wish I could’ve uploaded more pics, if you are interested in seeing my pictures from my trip, please send me an e-mail as I don’t want to post them all here.

For my two week winter break end of January-beginning of February, I decided I wanted to go some place a bit cold and in which I can be surrounded by art, culture, quaint shops and cafés, narrow cobbled streets in which I can do lots of walking. I missed all of that so much! My dear friend and colleague, Nadia, offered that I visit and stay with her sister who lives in Belgium. At first I couldn’t accept such an offer but she insisted and assured me that it’s alright. I told myself it’d be a nice opportunity to meet new people and to stay with someone who is familiar with the country. I knew though that I wasn’t planning on staying in Belgium for the whole two weeks. I wanted to take advantage of the fact that I was close to other European countries so that I can visit.

My journey began in Belgium. Nadia’s sister, Amel, and her husband Moncef were very kind to pick me up from the Brussels airport one afternoon. They live in an area called Mouscron (the “s” here is not pronounced) which is about an hour and a half away from Brussels, by car. I cannot thank Amel and Moncef enough for their generosity and kindness. They were truly caring and treated me like their own daughter. I enjoyed my stay with them and really do miss their presence. I was happy to meet some of their friends. One of them, a Belgian, who coincidently, used to work in Kuwait at some point so it was interesting to share and discuss what our views are about living and working in Kuwait. He invited us over at his place and Amel prepared for us an amazing Tunisian couscous meal.

I also met one of their other friends who works as a travel agent and who helped me find a deal and book my trip to Berlin. I find that is one of the best parts of traveling to different countries, the fact that you get to meet locals, friends of friends, down to earth and genuine people.

I didn’t spend my whole time in Mouscron. I had the opportunity to visit Barcelona and Berlin. I also visited Lille also known as “Le Petit Paris” (“The Little Paris”) for a couple of hours as it is very close to Mouscron. Sluis in the Netherlands was one of my favourite places (about an hour drive from Mouscron). We had the best meal of mussels and fries (very famous meal in that area of the Netherlands). What I loved most are the little traditional looking shops. On our way to Sluis, we stopped at Brugge, a quaint old city near Brussels, also known as “the Venice of the North” which was just breathtaking and enchanting. My flight back to Belgium from Berlin landed at the Brussels airport so I spend about a day in Brussels, the capital of Europe. I also got the chance to visit other areas in Belgium, nearby Mouscron such as Kortrijk, Wevelgam and Oostende. I stopped in Oostende just for a bit to visit the seaside which was so peaceful and calm. Moncef told me that during the summer, all the French come to this part of Belgium to soak up the sun.

Wevelgam is where Amel and Moncef’s friend, Patrick, lived. Patrick is from Boulogne, France. He moved to Belgium at a very young age. Wevelgam is about 10 minutes away from Mouscron and it is in a Flemish area (most people there speak Flemish). Moncef explained to me that the kingdom of Belgium is made up of two fiercely independent regions: French speaking Wallonia (Wallonie, en Français) to the south and Flanders (Vlaanderen) to the north which speaks Flemish, a form of Dutch. Brussels is located in the heart of Flanders, but is part of the “French community”.
Back to Amel and Moncef’s friend 🙂 I found Patrick to be such a kind-hearted man and a caring father. I loved spending time with his sons Elias (who had down syndrome) and Dylan. I especially love interacting with children who have down syndrome, they seem to be very socially competent and so caring, loving and empathetic towards individuals. I kind of envied this family’s simple living lifestyle. In fact, I noticed that Europeans in general seem to cherish life more and not get caught up in the rush of life. Many of whom I encountered throughout my trip would say to me: “tu es jeune, il faut profiter de la vie.” (“you are young, you must embrace and enjoy life”).

I especially liked Brugge as it was simply romantic and quaint. I was so tempted by the display windows in this rustic old city. After all, Bruggians are the connoisseurs of chocolate.

My flight arrived in Brussels early one morning on my way back from Berlin. Brussels is home to dozens of museums, galleries and theatres; its neighbourhood is centered on the “La Grande Place” which is basically a homogenous body of public and private buildings, dating mainly from the late 17th century. It was nice to walk in Brussels’ cobbled stone streets and take in the grandeur and magnificence of “La Grande Place” all to myself (there were only about two other people around since it was still so early). What I loved about “La Grande Place” is that it has an interesting intricate architecture.

The cultural traveler in me led me to the “Musée du Cacao et du Chocolat”, to learn about the origins of chocolate 🙂 This museum opened in 1998 by Jo Draps, the daughter of one of the founders of Godiva chocolate company, the Musée du Cacao et du Chocolat is truly a chocoholic’s dream. Fresh milk chocolate is churned at the entrance and you are offered with a speculo (cinnamon cookie) dipped in this chocolate, divine!! The museum is pretty small and cozy but gives you an interesting and complete overview of the origins of chocolate. There was also a man who gave a short presentation about how pralines are made. Belgium is particularly famous for its pralines: in 1912, Jean Neuhaus invented the praline, the quintessential Belgian chocolate, when he filled chocolate shells with cream and pastes. Here’s some interesting information about the origins of chocolate and the procedures for it to turn into chocolate: reaching up to four to ten meters, the cocoa tree grows in tropical conditions in hot and humid regions. The cocoa originally comes from Central America but now 70% of production worldwide is derived from West Africa. The fruit of the cocoa tree is called “pod”. This pod-like fruit is 10 to 25 cm long, weighs 300 to 500 grams and contains 30 to 40 beans embedded in a pulp. The beans are harvested after four months. They are opened to remove the beans which are left to ferment for two or three days, they are turned over from time to time. The beans are left in the sun to dry for two weeks. Once these two stages have been completed, the beans are exported in shipping sacks. They are then roasted, broken from their shells and grinded. The result is a paste called cocoa mass. The mass is kneaded during hours in a conch (i.e. giant kneading machine). Cocoa butter, vanilla, lecithin, sugar (and milk for milk chocolate or white chocolate) are added in different proportions, depending on the type of chocolate. During the whole production process, the fluidity of the chocolate is measured. The chocolate is then ready to be delivered to artisans and chocolate masters. It is delivered in 3 forms: drops or “callets”, 5 kilos tablets, liquid.

Aside from the chocolate and the fries, you can’t go to Brussels and not have waffles!!

In Brussels, I also got the chance to visit the “Centre de Bandes Dessinées Belge” (The Belgian Comic Strip Center) which basically chronicles the history of Belgian comics. This brought back memories of my childhood, I remembered when my sister, Dina, and I would be so excited about going to the library as we would love to take out comic books such as Tintin, Les Schtroumphs, Boule et Bille, Astérix et Obélix, Johan et Pirlouit.

The two cities I visited on my own are Barcelona and Berlin. I had never visited new countries on my own before so it was an interesting experience. I found that the advantage of traveling alone is that you have complete freedom and independence. You never need to consider your partner’s wishes when you decide what to see, where to go, where to eat, how much to spend, etc. Another great advantage is that you meet more people (and I definitely have had the opportunity to meet different people throughout my trip). When you’re alone, you will be more inclined to reach out and make friends. I didn’t have any trouble getting around or finding places. I relied mainly on touristic guidebooks. However, whenever I would find myself unsure about getting to a place, I would JUST ASK. I don’t understand why some people feel like it undermines their capabilities or confidence to ask for directions to a place. You’d be surprised at how nice and friendly people can be to the point that they can even go as far as walking you to the place you’re looking for if it’s not too far from where they already are. This reminds me that I recently read this article about how humans are naturally empathetic:

http://www.aljazeera.com/news/americas/2012/02/201222023301844664.html

On my way to Barcelona, it was kind of difficult for me to summon up my excitement as I had just learned a few days prior to my departure to Barcelona that my grandmother (maternal) had just passed away. She was a tremendously loving, caring and special woman whom I have fond memories of and I kept thinking about how unbearable the idea was of losing a mother. I wished that I could be by my mother’s side during this difficult time. May God grant her the highest level of paradise and may He bless and protect all our loved ones.

My favourite part of Barcelona was walking in Las Ramblas, the most lively and exciting pedestrian area in the city! Out of the three days I spent in Barcelona, the sun finally shone strongly the third day! I was so grateful for that!

Nearby Las Ramblas is La Bouqueria market (Mercat de Sant Josep), which is a strikingly beautiful market and known as the largest open air market in all of Spain!

Some museums I visited in Barcelona are the Picasso Museum (tucked away in amongst the bodegas (small grocery stores) and the Museum of Contemporary Art which was bursting out of the narrow streets. The Picasso Museum contains key works that mark the various early times when Picasso was most intensely involved with the city of Barcelona. One of my favourite lines of Picasso is “Je ne cherche pas, je trouve” (“I do not seek, I find”) meaning that Picasso would let his art creation come without difficulty, without having to think too much about it. I believe it also means that sometimes we are so caught up searching for something, not realizing that things just come naturally. Many of the works that were presented at the Museum of Contemporary Art stood out for their exquisite realism.

I loved walking near the beach (my hotel was near the beach) and enjoying a gelato. One of the best parts about Barcelona was the food course 🙂

I chose a good day to visit the Sagrada Familia, which was the last day of my visit in Barcelona, the day the sun shone through the beautiful glass windows of the Sagrada Familia (which, by the way, with over 120 years of construction, is still a work in progress).

I was in complete awe when I first saw the Sagrada Familia, a true masterpiece. When I visited Gaudi’s other dizzying and bizarre architectures such as Casa Milà (La Pedrera) and Casa Batlló, I wondered what kind of drugs was he taking! Aside from that, he was quite clever as Gaudi’s astonishing designs did not merely mimic nature, they were the result of attentive and intelligent observation of natural forms, structures and functional characteristics. From a young age, Gaudi showed a keen interest in shapes, colours and the geometry of nature.

I have to mention the sweet Kuwaiti couple I met on the tour bus and then with whom I visited the Sagrada Familia. Jawza and Mohammed were sitting behind me on the tour bus and they asked me a question regarding the system of the tour bus. We then started conversing and mentioning where we are from. They told me they were from Kuwait and I told them that I was living in Kuwait for the past 3 years. We then met each other again in the waiting line to enter Gaudi’s legend of art, the Sagrada Familia. I passed by them and when they saw that I was heading towards the end of the line to wait my turn, they insisted that I just stand in line with them so that I don’t have to wait a long time to enter. Once we got to the ticket booth, I was about to pay for my ticket when they insisted on paying for me (and not just the regular price ticket, they insisted to buy the ticket in which you get to take the elevator to go to the highest level of the Sagrada Familia to get a nice view in addition to an entrance ticket to Gaudi’s Parc Güell.) I couldn’t believe they’d do this for a complete stranger; I protested several times, thanking them for their kindness but they just would not let me pay. I am very grateful to have met such a nice couple. We visited the Sagrada Familia and Parc Güell together and had a nice time.

My trip to Berlin was rough at the beginning as I had hardly slept the day before departing for Berlin. In order for me not to pay a lot for hotels, for both Barcelona and Berlin, I stayed only 2 nights and 3 days. My flight back to Belgium from Barcelona was supposed to leave at 6 am but was delayed for over 6 hours. I slept at the airport of Barcelona that night (so that I don’t have to pay an extra night for a hotel), arriving at 10 pm at the airport and waiting for my flight departing at 6 am. I ended up leaving at 12 pm!! It was quite exhausting. Once I arrived in Belgium, it was about 6 pm as I had to take a train from the Charlevoix airport (which is about an hour away from Mouscron, where I was staying) and this train didn’t come regularly so I had to wait for it. Once I arrived in Mouscron, I ate, freshened up and packed for Berlin and got ready to head to the Brussels airport from where my Berlin flight was departing. Once again, I had to sleep in the airport as my flight to Berlin was departing early in the morning (at about 7 am). That’s where I got sick and spent most of my night at the airport feeling unwell. Once I arrived in Berlin, forgetting what winter was as it was extremely cold and I had not experienced winter for about 2 years since I had not returned to Canada during the winter, only during summers; though I knew I’d be wasting a day, I took a hot shower and went straight to bed. I made up for all the sleep I had missed and felt much better the next day and went out to discover.

I was very happy to meet up with my childhood friends, Aly and Shaimaa. They left Canada with their parents at a very young age to live in Germany as their father had found a job there. Here’s a picture of Aly and I, buddies as toddlers 🙂 and a picture of meeting with Aly and Shaimaa in Berlin.

Aly was very kind to show me around; we visited the Pergamonmuseum which houses the collection of classical antiquities, the museum of ancient near east and the museum of Islamic art. We also got the chance to see the German cathedral as well as the Berlin Wall and enjoy a nice hot drink and meal at the famous “Café Einstein” at the enchanting street “Under Den Linden”.

I had also visited the Jewish Museum, Brandenburg gate (builty by Friederich Wilhelm II as a symbol of military victory), walked over to Checkpoint Charline and visited the victory column (a 27 m tall monument that celebrates Prussia’s victory over France in 1880. The statue of Victoria is at the top, made of melted-down French cannons. During WWII, Hitler had the statue move to its present location to increase its visibility).

I’ve learned that when you travel, whichever place you visit, you should always leave a place wanting more. That’s the best feeling and a feeling of satisfaction that you’ve really enjoyed your visit, knowing that you want to come back. I had a fervent desire to not want to leave anything unseen, don’t want to leave anything inexperienced, wanting to “suck the marrow of life” as Henry David Thoreau says:

~ “I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately, I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to put to rout all that was not life and not when I had come to die Discover that I had not lived.” ~

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