Saturday, August 29, 2009

Brussels in a Notebook

Fellow blogger, Nomadic Matt, recently blogged about his need to keep better notes while on the road. I sympathize with his situation having had many a frustrating moment trying to remember some important detail - an address, the name of a favorite restaurant - last year in Paris. Getting ready to head to Brussels, I was vowing to do a better job this time around when another fellow blogger came to the rescue: The Cupcake Avenger gifted me my very first Molskine City Notebook.

Now, it's possible that before receiving a Moleskine City Notebook all wrapped up in a pretty little birthday bag, I was the only traveler in existence who didn't really know what a Moleskine City Notebook was. Basically, it's a guide book that you make yourself as you go along exploring and living in a specific city. There are some street maps and a metro guide in the front of my Brussels edition, but the rest is up to me. They give you sections for writing down favorite shops, eateries, encounters and museums. There is a little expandable pouch in the back for stashing away business cards, ticket stubs and newspaper clippings. There are blank pages for your notes, and tracing papers for, well, whatever you might need tracing papers for. I recently used my Moleskine to jot down the address of a fromagerie that recently won my heart with an amazing crottin de chèvre.

Having only used Moleskin for a few short days, I already don't know how I ever traveled without one. Isn't it fun how there's always a new travel toy to discover and play with on your next trip? If you know you're going to be in a certain city for an extended period of time, think about picking up your own City Notebook. They makes guides for locales all over the globe, from Amsterdam to Zurich. When you're done, you'll have the perfect, useful souvenir in your possession. And you'll never again forget the name of a favorite fromagerie.

Monday, August 24, 2009

In Brussels, Even the Bus Gets a Vacation

August in Europe can only mean one thing: vacation. You probably already know that this is the time of year when European families, couples and singles take a few weeks to recharge their batteries and enjoy life. But did you know the same benefit - vacation time guaranteed by law - also applies to public transportation? Well, at least in Brussels it does. As an American friend recently pointed out to me, the schedule for the city's various transport options is currently reduced, running on what's called the "grandes vacances" timetable. This basically means that every hour (including the traditional rush hours) offers a few less options for hitching a ride. It hasn't been a major inconvenience or anything; I'm still able to get to work on time and find my way around town. But it did make me wonder: what exactly has my life come to when bus routes, a network of trams, and a subway system all have more vacation time than I do?

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Getting Over Jet Lag

As I write this entry, my eyes are slowly starting to close… Jet lag. It happens even to the most seasoned of travelers. No matter how many times you cross the pond (or the Pacific), jumping between multiple timezones can mess with your internal clock and wreak havoc on your body’s sleep patterns. This is where the homegrown remedies come in. It seems like everyone has a solution for beating jet lag. The “cures” vary widely in their approaches, and travelers love to share their best strategies for getting on local time. With dead tiredness setting in at unusual hours, I’m all ears.

But what option do you trust? A colleague of mine suggested drinking orange juice as a way to banish the body’s timezone confusion. Before heading off to Brussels, I came across a magazine article that cited a study by the Harvard Medical School that suggests fasting before and during your flight will keep jet lag at bay. My Frommer’s guide tries to debunk the classic hit-the-ground-running theory by claiming a quick nap upon arrival is truly the way to go. None of that worked for you? Then try popping a few No-Jet-Lag pills. Yup, they have those.

In the end, waiting it out might be the only true recourse for the weary traveler. I’ve heard many people say it takes them at least a week to get back on a normal sleep schedule, and I’m predicting the same will be true for me in Belgium, no matter how much advice to the contrary I receive. Of course, my own thought on jet lag has always been that it’s easier to go from the U.S. to Europe than it is from Europe to the U.S., this trip notwithstanding. Something about that never-ending day on the westward journey that seems to be especially disruptive. Everyone has their own way of tackling (or accepting) jet lag. What’s yours?

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

À Bientôt

You know how you can get nostalgic about something before it’s even over? You start to miss your seven-day vacation on day five, you reminisce about your college days weeks before graduation, and you think about all the good times you shared in the final days before a predictable break-up. That’s where I’m at with my life in DC. With the move to Brussels less than a week away, and even though I’m well aware that I’ll be back before I know it, I’m starting to wax poetic about what a beautiful city the nation’s capitol really is, how much I’m going to miss my favorite neighborhood spots… and remind me again why am I leaving this life I’ve built to traipse halfway around the world, over-stuffed suitcase in hand?

In addition to getting all “remember when?” and “those were the days…” about DC, I’m also in full-on getting-things-done mode. Packing boxes, cleaning out closets and changing my status with everyone from the U.S. Postal Service (yes, mom will be getting my mail) to my local gym (can I put my membership on hold for six months?) doesn’t leave much time for blogging. In fact, this will be the last stateside entry of Parisian Spring for 2009. See you in a week – in Brussels!

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Fear of Flying

If only getting to Brussels didn't involve getting on an airplane. What with the luggage fees, carry-on restrictions, demeaning, assembly line-ish removing-of-the-shoes security, and the lack of any decent in-flight service, flying becomes less and less pleasant every time I do it. That would be bad enough on its own, but on top of being wholly uncomfortable, air travel is also downright scary. I've never felt at ease at 30,000 feet, and this week's story of violent turbulence isn't helping. For some travelers, the skies are anything but friendly.

The aforementioned realities of flying explain why, when given the option, I much prefer to travel by train. Taking the Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV) in France, for example, is downright enjoyable. You can show up as little as five minutes before your departure time, there are no security lines, there are no liquid carry-on restrictions, the seats have more legroom and are only two to a side, not three or more, there is usually a bar car for your enjoyment, and an upgrade to first class is often very reasonably priced. Now, some might argue that the absence of security checkpoints is not a positive thing, or that flying is not scary at all when you remember that riding in a car is far more likely to get you killed and we do that all the time without really worrying about it, but I disagree. I enjoy boarding a train with my dignity in tact (as well as my shoes), and I don't care what the statistics say; I feel better without the possibility of plummeting to my death hanging over me, however minuscule that possibility might be.

Alas, if one wishes to travel, one will at some point likely need to ride in an airplane. The best those of us who despair at the thought can do is to minimize the headaches of flight: try not to check bags, wear easily removable shoes, and take deep, reassuring breaths when the ride gets a little bumpy. It should be said that I've also met travelers who turn to medicinal solutions, the non-over-the-counter kind. And for goodness' sake, whenever possible you should avoid purchasing tickets that require you to change planes. I'm happy to report that my flight from DC to Brussels is blessedly direct.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Guidebooks for All

In between all the hectic last-minute errands and general pain in the neck aspects of moving, getting ready to live overseas is ridiculously fun and exciting. In addition to dusting off my language skills by talking to myself in French for long stretches of time, one of my favorite pre-trip rituals involves researching and purchasing a new guidebook. New guidebooks are full of possibilities, and there's nothing like a bit of pre-trip reading to get you in the mood for travel. Needless to say, when my copy of The Rough Guide to Europe on a Budget finally arrived in the mail I literally jumped for joy.

With all the options out there - guides for Europe, guides for just Western or Eastern Europe, country and even city-specific options from multiple travel guide sources - it can be difficult to make your final selection. Lonely Planet and Frommer's are perennial favorites, and Rick Steves is a reliable expert on Europe. Personally, I used to love the Let's Go series. My college friends and I would read their cleverly written histories and descriptions of upcoming destinations to each other while riding the rails in France, Spain or Italy. This time around I wanted a book that better fits my post-student travel lifestyle, and the Rough Guides line came recommended. If you're traveling through France, you should always pick up a copy of the Michelin Guide. Especially useful on road trips, Michelin rates food and lodging throughout the country, from swank Parisian hotels to traditional bistrots in the tiniest of French villages. If it wasn't for Michelin, I might never have spent a night in a 14th century Cisterian monastery. Be sure to look for the Michelin Man symbol, not stars, if you want to go budget.

Selecting a guidebook can be a very personal decision. Like other travel gear, such as a backpack or a camera, you have to get a good feeling about it; you have to have a connection with your guidebook. After all, it's going to be your constant companion, helping you find a place to sleep, food to eat, and sights to explore. When it comes to guidebooks, everyone has their favorite. What's yours?