Brussels and Thailand, of Sorts

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The Hotel Welcome, situated in the middle of the Grand Place, a large and popular square in Brussels, was manned by a gregarious man with a booming voice and emphatic gestures, who handed us our keys and told us five times (I counted) about the fire escape procedures. The way to our room was via a labyrinth of red carpeted stairs, narrow hallways and signs pointing this way, then that way. The rooms were themed by country, no numbers on the doors, just symbols representative of the room’s country. We were in Thailand, complete with a painted sunset and a gold statue looking down at us from the rafters. The fire escape procedures were posted on the door and next to it. 

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The Grand Place was alight with Christmas festivities. We soon discovered that Belgium is not finished with Christmas on Christmas Day. Christmas happenings continue well into the new year. The square was host to trees bright with red and white flashing lights, a ferris wheel, an ice rink, 240 plus stalls of waffles, pretzels, sausage, sweets, chocolate and crafts, a Jaeger bar and hundreds of people toasting each other with steins spilling over with Chimay. I don’t know if it is just this way around the new year, but stepping out of Switzerland and into Belgium was like going from a quiet gathering to a giant house party.

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No horses for this carousel - dinosaurs and hot air balloons and airplanesimage

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We spent just shy of nine hours on the train to get from Wengen to Brussels. I had just asked Valor what would happen if the train came up on something on the tracks, when the words “screeching halt” took on their true meaning. Standing in the dining car, the force tossed us into the opposite wall. Plates went flying, glassware shattered, wine and beer glasses danced their way down table trays and split into shards and the train came to a stop, from 180mph, in about five seconds. At slower speeds, the sudden stops happened two more times. The best we could figure was that something had happened with the timing of the trains. Thankful they kept us all safe, but they lost a lot of money in glassware that day. 

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Cathedral in Cologne, Germany

That evening, we kicked our limited gluten policy to the curb for a dinner of Belgian waffles and beer in the Grand Place square. We wrapped up with a cup of gluhwein with amaretto and roasted chestnuts. We opened our hotel windows, curled up with our books and sipped our gluhwein, listening to the commotion below. After a few, we gave up on the chestnuts, because shoot, you have to hull each one and that is a lot of work for a midnight snack. 

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imageA giant bratwurst. Why not?

What Happened, Happened - A More Candid Post

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My rental snowboard sits ten or twenty feet away from me, with its backwards bindings askew. A downhill mess of packed snow and crunchy ice stretches at least a mile from where my snowboard and I sit, staring each other down. 

I am a hot mess of emotions because this day started going sideways long before my snowboard did. Defeated, I sit in the middle of the run, wiping my eyes of crystalized snow and tears, contending with my failure to “save” the day and wondering who the hell put the damn bindings on backwards in the first place. 

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I had spent at least a quarter of a mile trying to get my left foot to go down the mountain first, only to have it kicked around and my right foot inevitably in front of me instead. I knew I wasn’t Shawn White, but I didn’t remember being this dismal at snow sports, so I was relieved to realize that backwards bindings were the primary culprit and irritated that it took me a quarter of a mile to figure it out and that anyone renting snowboards would put bindings on backwards

A bad day in Switzerland is better than a bad day in may other places, but it took me until dinner to get that kind of perspective on it. 

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I get up onto my knees and fish my snowboard back toward me, contending with how to fix these bindings. But it’s not out of any sense of resolve or virtue that I do so, that I work them around to the other side of the board or that I strap my size-too-small boots back in. I don’t want to be stuck on this mountain in the dark, I don’t want to be charged for returning rental gear past closing and I want beer or wine or both. 

We had assumed a more successful snowboarding/skiing experience, so instead of buying lift passes, we decided to ski/snowboard from Kleinne Shiedegg at the top, down to Wengen and take the train back up to Kleinne Shiedegg. After my third, fourth or fifth tumble and fight with my board, it became apparent that we would not make it to Wengen in time to take the train up the mountain and return our gear before closing. Stymied, we made it down to the next lift, hoping that a lift operator would take pity our bedraggled selves and allow us on. 

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I stand at the base of the lift that we have found unmanned. The chairs circle around and around and around. I will not get on this one. Or that one. Or this one. The sun is nearly behind the mountain, I cannot feel my toes or my fingers and despite fixing my bindings, my board is still under waxed and even when I can manage to get my feet and the front end of my board headed in the right direction, it jerks to a halt, like a car out of gas.

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I am, at this point, desperate to get off of this mountain. There is no one to plead with, only a line of locked turnstiles to say “no.” We need lift passes to get through the turnstiles and we have none. I contemplate whether I can go over or under or around, or if I can make a friend and beg to use their pass. I pull my train pass out of my pocket and approach the sensor that controls the turnstiles. I hold the pass up to the sensor, tentatively, as if asking for permission. It opens. I practically jump for joy through the turnstile and clamber onto a lift chair before anything has a chance to change its mind. So far, this is the best part of the day. 

I started by wanting to fix Valor’s day because his went sideways before mine did. I had been savoring the moments with him not having to work. When he takes time off, I really get to see how creative, funny  and sincere he is. I was so enjoying seeing him let go of the day to day concerns and get to be present in the moment. On this day, his company announced a surprise merger and we spent the majority of our morning sorting through legalese and e-signing paperwork so that Valor had a job to come home to, even though we knew little about what that job was going to look like. Much as he tried not to be worried, he was, and I was sad about that. 

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I have a difficult time with bad days while traveling. I feel like bad days can happen at work or because of traffic or during an ordinary week, but not during travel, because travel is special and when it doesn’t go as planned, I feel, wrongly so, that I need to make up for it, or make it better. So, right away, when our day started to go sideways, I adopted a “fix it” attitude, which in the end, did not serve either of us well. 

We decided that nothing makes a body and a soul feel better than a little physical activity, out in the beauty of nature, so we settled on renting snow gear and taking on the Alps. But to take on the Alps, one needs working gear. Alps: 1. Team Poland: 0. 

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Let’s end with what went well. What went well was that we were still in Switzerland and a bad day in Switzerland is better than a bad day in many other places. At the end of our day, we had delicious hot chocolate with kirsch schnapps at the Air Time Cafe in Lauterbrunnen and bought two small wedges of raw, local cheese that we refrigerated out on our balcony overnight. Disgruntled and discouraged, we returned to Hotel Edelweiss in the evening after having been turned down for dinner at three restaurants along the way. By God’s providence, two people had cancelled their reservation at our own hotel and Daniel offered the two seats to us right as we set foot in the door. We ended the day with a hot dinner and two glasses of red wine, a fire crackling in the corner, reconnecting with each other and allowing grace to take hold of our frustrating day. 

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Daniel, Fendusen and Olle.

Daniel, Fendusen and Olle. Three Swiss acquaintances who, in listed order, made the twenty-seventh of December hospitable, snuggly and tasty.

Daniel is the manager of Hotel Edelweiss in Wengen, where we stayed. In our case, this meant that he took to our map with a red marker, taught us to grind our own muesli and offered us a room for a third night when one unexpectedly became free. 

Hotel Edelweiss, as it turned out, offered comfortable beds, sweeping views, two cozy sitting rooms, homemade breakfast and dinner, a twenty-four hour coffee service with heated racks for the cups and an “honesty box,” to pay for after hours drinks and snacks. Hotel Edelweiss was comprehensive, in the most unstuffy way. Daniel, as it turned out, shared our Jesus-following faith. So, with an extra day offering a slower pace, we all sat down over our muesli and marmalade and talked. Hotel Edelweiss was not just a place to sleep, but a part of our experience - a place I wanted to be. 

After muesli and marmalade came Gimmelwald. With Gimmelwald, came Fendusen, the cat. He greeted us around the corner from the Honesty Shop - an open doored, unmanned shop containing hand made gifts and other less handmade options, such as Frosted Flakes, for any backpackers passing through or anyone tired of eating cheese and chocolate. Who that would be, I have no idea. 

Gimmelwald and Murren, the stop before, are car free. Access is by train and cable car and slippery, icy walkways from there onward. Valor and I slipped and stumbled up the path, feeling as though we had stepped into a story book. Lace curtained windows, piles of wood, sleds parked outside the Biergarten, clogs nailed to walls, gnomes peeking from above terraces and every family’s name carved or painted above their doors. If I had seen it in a movie, I would have believed it to be staged. 

It was Olle, of Olle and Maria’s Bed and Breakfast who told us the name of our new cat companion. A sign dripping with snow melt encouraged us to knock for sugar almonds. Olle greeted us in a booming but friendly voice and in his socks. After purchasing two small bags of sugar almonds, we slipped our way back down the road to the cable car. We would have been smarter to just glissade down and after reaching the bottom, it was clear why anyone who knew anything owned a sled.  

At the end of the day, we stomped our muddy boots and dripping snow pants through the door of Hotel Edelweiss where Daniel quickly offered us hot soup and two glasses of wine and watched the snow fall in spirals, covering this corner of the world in a brand new blanket of white, waiting for tomorrow’s adventures.