Sunday, August 10, 2008

Brussels and notes on the trip to Southern Italy

In the wee hours Friday morning, back in the room, we packed, caught up on email, checked flight status updates, and headed to the aeroporto. Because I started the trip in the US and Olga started hers in Russia, we were on separate itineraries and had separate parallel flights: we both flew from Palermo at 6am, shared a layover in Rome at 8am, had separate layovers, then both were to arrive in San Francisco at 8pm. Except I had scheduled only 1 hour layover for myself in Brussels - and my Alitalia flight was 1 hour late! No amount of OJ Simpson-like running from one end of the huge Brussels airport to the other could get me there on time. And United had no more flights until the identical flight on Saturday -- which means my vacation was extended by 24 hours in Belgium!!!

Not many people stay at inexpensive hotels near airports - it caters to a very specific niche. After missing my flight, while waiting for the shuttle bus to a hotel, I befriended a lady who was on her way to visit family in Freetown, Sierra Leone, West Africa. Her flight from New York JFK to Brussels was two hours late, she missed the connection, and the next flight wouldn't be until 4 days later on Tuesday. After I helped get her bags into the hotel (which, for anyone playing along with the home game, is how I originally met Olga!), I checked in, dropped off my bags, and ran back to the waiting shuttle bus that was just getting ready to leave to go back to the airport. On the shuttle, I met a very friendly couple from Lima Peru that was visiting Brussels as a home base and taking trips out to smaller towns in Belgium and France. They had a very early flight out on Sunday and wanted to stay close to the airport. They guided me towards the bus to downtown and advised me on city travel options. Then later in the evening I met an Israeli (Russian emigrant) Paulina who was staying in Brussels for 2 weeks for a Yiddish language class to improve her Jewish folk singing. The 2 week program had just ended and she spent her first (and last) day visiting the town. We were both taking the subway to the same station (where I was to pick up a bus back to the airport - and where she was staying in the program) and together struggled to figure out how to get on the right metro line.

Brussels is sooooo cute - the tourist-filled squares have fun little shops with the best chocolates - every corner has a pub with an unbelievable selection of trappist monk-made and fruity beers - used CD stores abound (I popped into a few and ended up buying a still-warm used Art Blakey Bluenote jazz CD straight out of the store CD player) - and of course the pommes frites and waffles - all signs/ads/marquees are in the national languages of French and Flemish as well as English (they could teach Americans a few things about multilingualism) - and of course the Manneken Pis statue that was a scene in itself because that corner was SO packed with gawkers.
Saturday, take two, I was rebooked on the same flights and I actually made it in time! I am amazed at how many friendly people we met on this trip - tourists of all kinds and pretty much everyone in Brussels.

Some additional notes on the trip:

* My Italian SCUBA instructor was introduced himself to me as "Jean Pierre from Sicily." I asked "are you French?" and he was a bit offended. "NO! It's spelled Gianpiero!"
* We heard the song "Eye of the Tiger" more than I have since 1976 - including the marching band in Cefalu and on the radio at Michele's Trattoria in Palermo. And "Aquarius" from Hair was running on a seemingly endless loop of commercials.

* One new development is the prevalence of Russian tourists throughout Europe - they seem to outnumber the American tourists in the towns we visited this trip.

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