I've returned from my adventures in Belgium and also a day in Oxford. After a day in Brussels, we traveled to Antwerp on Saturday. Antwerp is known because it is a major "port" for diamonds and diamond deals. Orthodox Jews walk in the streets with briefcases of diamonds handcuffed to their wrists. Since I went to visit on Saturday, I sadly did not see them because it was the Sabbath. I was surprised I didn't see more apparent security in the area with so much expensive jewelry all in one place, but most likely it's more hidden cameras and things that I wouldn't be able to glance at and see. There is also a legend in Antwerp about a giant that terrorized the town and a hero chopped off his hand (I think that's how it went anyways), so a majority of the chocolates in Antwerp are shaped like hands or diamonds. I enjoy when even the touristy things you by relate in some way to the history of the area you are in, it makes it seem less touristy to me in some ways. There's also a large rock statue of a hand in the middle of the main shopping plaza, which I, of course, took a picture of me in the palm!
On Sunday we went to Brugge, which was my favorite town that we visited. There was so much quaintness and small beauty to the area. Cobbled streets and small houses, and we even had tea in this small tea shop. The hot chocolate there was warm milk with a saucer of chocolate that you add to it (such a good idea!) Plus, I got to see the only Michelangelo statue that was ever moved out of Italy during his lifetime. So, even though I won't make it to Italy on this trip, I still got to see art by one of its famed artisans! Where they put the statue (in a cathedral) almost makes it a better experience to see, because it made the statue seem more sacred in a lot of ways, plus it was in a place it was meant for and with surroundings it was intended to be. The statue was not in a museum that offered little for the imagination to think of what type of context it was made for. Also in Brugge is one of many Chocolate Museums in Belgium! I think this is a fantastic idea! We received some chocolate when we bought our ticket and then again when we exited after a chocolate making demonstration. I learned a lot about the chocolate making process and how different kinds/varieties evolved. There was a story about how Spanish women used to have servants bring them chocolate drinks during mass. A clergyman got so annoyed with this that he banned chocolate from church. In the end, the clergyman was killed by poison in his chocolate drink! They didn't say who poisoned him, but I would think the women would have been pretty testy at being denied chocolate. I can't imagine what would happen to a man if he tried to do that to a woman today!
So I covered chocolate, fries and waffles, but another important aspect of Belgian life is beer! When we were in Brussels we went to this bar that is in the Guinness Book of World Records for the variety of beers they offer (2004). The menu was alphabetical by beer with descriptions and then listed by country. I was amazed at the number of countries that have their own brew of beer! I didn't realize so many had stake in beer brewing and I wondered if they were original creations or brews that they felt "improved" upon common brands. It would be an interesting experiment to live in Brussels for enough time to be able to go to that bar and pick a different country's beer every time. Who knew beer could be a cultural experience as well! One of the funniest stories of the trip was when we tried to order a liter of beer from a bar. The bartender said (what we thought was) "litre?" and stretched out his arms and we were like "yes!" He comes back with a METER of half pints of beer in a wooden box, and there were two of us so he thought we wanted two of them! We were like "Noooo! Liter!!" Apparently, liter didn't exist (even though we saw it on the menu the night before) and so we got a half liter instead. The bartender wasn't too happy about that, but someone did order a meter later so I didn't feel so bad. I never imagined you could get a meter of beer somewhere... when in Belgium I guess!
My traveler and I arrived in London at 8:30am on Monday (mind you we had to be up at 5am to catch a train from Leuven to Brussels, then from Brussels to London), only to go from Waterloo to Paddington station via the Tube to catch another train to Oxford with the program. I think my experience in Oxford would have been better if I had gotten more than 30 minutes of sleep prior to getting there, but I saved a lot of money ($80) by coming back Monday morning rather than Sunday night. The lectures were quite interesting though and one of the lecturers had met Winston Churchill during his life! I walked around Oxford a little bit after the lectures, but all I wanted to do was get home and get some laundry done because my clothes reeked of smoke. That was my biggest problem in Belgium, there was no smoking ban in public restaurants and pubs/clubs. I think I used half a bottle of Febreeze while I was there and my friend that came used the other half. We gave the girl we borrowed it from enough Euros to buy a new one with our apologies because it was something the two of us just weren't used to, since a smoking ban was implemented in London the July before we arrived in the city. The people on the program in Leuven said they had gotten used to it, but that they did have to do laundry more often or designate one pair of jeans as "going out" jeans. I can't imagine how much I've saved money-wise in laundry by being in a smoke-free country (well not smoke-free... but smoke-free inside!). Now it's back to work and schoolwork! Luckily I have another trip planned for this upcoming weekend to Belfast! It's the trip I've been looking forward to the most!