Chapter 1: Getting There is Half the Fun

Brussels Travel Blog

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I had known for months that I would be traveling Europe with my childhood friend Dan during the summer of ’95, but like most other pending dates I had put off getting ready to the very last minutes.  Dan’s cousin (who we affectionately call Kin) and another friend were to pick us up at 7:00 am and take us four hours to Chicago’s O’Hare for our flight.  As it was ten PM, I had nine hours to move out of my apartment, put my things in storage, pack for a four month trip (and I am notorious for over-packing) and say goodbye to my current girlfriend.  Like most times under pressure, I performed amazingly with the help cigarettes, coffee, beer, then coffee, then beer:  anything to change the pace and beat the monotony.  Anything in my apartment that was sentimental I packed and moved to storage; everything else I gave away.  I said goodbye to my baby while packing.  She was great not to make a big deal out of my leaving.  It seemed to be relatively easy for both of us because she planned on a reunification in four months and I didn’t.  By morning I was so tired I couldn’t even think.  I was so delirious I took everything that came to mind and made the heaviest backpack Europe would see that summer.  Literally, as I was sitting on my pack and zipping it up, Dan’s cousin pulled up with a case of beer and we were off!  
    We arrived at the airport, checked in our packs quick and easy (the old days!) and had 2 1/2 hours to kill.  We went straight to a bar (which was conveniently and oddly located directly across form our gate) and started with shots.  I was really tired, getting really drunk and don’t remember much except Dan’s cousin occasionally going over to the gate, talking to the attendants, coming back and buying more shots.  “Hey, Kin.  You think we need to get on the plane?  Everyone else is getting on?”  He replied that he would figure it out and that we should take the shots sitting in front of us, this time toasting to France.  I figured I would let someone else handle the logistics; it was worth it to me even if I missed the plane.  With beer in hand, I made two overly sentimental phone calls to two friends who had birthdays this day, May 3rd.  I arrived back to my bar stool to find the two shots I had fallen behind.  “Here’s to Italy and Amsterdam!  Hey Kin, that sucker’s scheduled to take off in ten minutes?”  In Kin’s lovable, laid back manner, “Plenty of time, plenty of time.  No problem.  I will let you know.”  We were literally alone at the bar, not a single person left in front of the gate, but nothing seemed odd to Dan and I.  Finally, right about the point that I couldn’t speak or think of another country to toast, a stewardess gave Kin a hand signal, we all hugged and were escorted on the plane.  Lack of sleep and too much booze will make you stupid and I was the poster-child.  The entire plane was filled except for one on row entirely open for Dan and I to stretch out on.  I thought we were just lucky?  If I had just one more drink, I should have made a toast to those stewardesses for reading the situation perfectly and rearranging passengers to accommodate them away from us and to accommodate us into a deep, well deserved sleep all the way over that big, lonesome♣ Atlantic Ocean.
In Tangent #1:  My Main Man Dan
The first time I truly met Dan was when he was sitting in front of our third grade class lacing up a brand new pair of blue and white tennis shoes.  You see, up until that time, because of a deteriorating hip Dan wore a big, heavy, loud brace attached down a metal rod and connected with a little brown boot.  I knew of him, but nothing about him.  I would hear him as he always came quickly down the hall bouncing and squeaking; but more noticeable (unbelievable) to me, always with a smile on his face.  I couldn’t imagine how hard that must have been for a young boy?  Kids are so brutally honest!  It would drive most people into an isolation that would be tough to ever get out.  Dan handled it with that smile on his face, a good attitude and the drive to not only compete; but be better than everyone else!  He was motoring through those halls with an attitude like, “Nothing can hold me back, not even this!  What about you?”  That’s how he has fought every battle in his life.  He is extremely physically and mentally tough and I could see it, even, back then.  I’ll remember that day forever!  A crowd had gathered in front of the classroom and when I went to take a look, it was Dan getting, and so deserving of, center stage.  We were all so happy and excited for him that day he got rid of that brace and shitty brown boot and laced up his bright new shoes!  We ran out to the playground and just watched in amazement how the biggest smile in the school could actually get bigger.  It’s that good attitude and smile on his face that he is famous for.  He would be the perfect person to travel with:  opening up so many people, cultures and opportunities (not to mention keeping me out of trouble).  Speaking of which:  that short, little, skinny kid hopping along in that squeaky, brown brace turned out to be an incredible physical specimen!  He was the fastest kid in school, scored the first touchdown for our football team, set a 400lbs. bench-press record weighing in at 160 and never shot over 80 in a round of golf.  He’s a straight-up stud!  And, he was never without a girlfriend.  I was the rebel of the two, but it was actually Dan’s idea to go to Europe.  In so many ways, I owe the entire, wonderful experience to him.  Years later and from an older perspective, I have been honored to meet people that have known him.  I feel like his great personality and positive nature reflect off of me like a badge.  For all of the positive elements that he has added to my life, as one of my oldest and best friends, I hope this book and these words can give just a little back.
I came around from my coma right around the time those big wheels hit the tarmac.  My first trans-Atlantic flight didn’t seem that bad?  If Lindbergh could have seen me now, he’d be pissed!  It was 7a.m. Belgium time and Dan and I were almost accustomed immediately.  Getting smashed in the afternoon certainly has its benefits for traveling long distances on airplanes.  I can just imagine some little man or lady petrified the entire time over that big, cold ocean while I slept like a baby.  Now, they have to sleep the whole day to get themselves straight and I am ready to take on the city, the country, the continent.  This was the first and last day Dan and I would 1.) Jump in the first source of transportation we see and get screwed with the uninterruptible fare and 2.) Carry around our packs sweating while looking for a place to stay and 3.) Stay at the standard International youth hostile listed in the standard travel book.  It didn’t take long to figure out the better routine.  Store the packs in baggage check and talk to some people, figure things out and find a cool, cheap place with a little class.  The last thing you want to do when you get to a new city is get a bad taste in your mouth letting people take advantage of you and your uncomfortable situation carrying around all your belongings.  Eventually, we found The International Youth Hostile, threw our stuff in the eight person room we were sharing and didn’t take notice of the strict curfews?  The city was beautiful!  Random, little statues on the sides of the street were older and had more history than our famous monuments.  You could feel the age behind this place!  Everything was interesting to us and using the theory of reciprocation, people were incredibly nice to us.  One person stood in the middle of a street with our camera until Dan and I were able to exactly recreate a mural of two “friends” walking arm and arm painted huge on the side of a building.  I look back on those pictures and laugh realizing that the mural was a gay pride symbol.  What the heck?  We were gay if it means being happy.  We were happy as hell!  I think we laughed for an hour straight when we saw that famous little statue taking a piss.  That would become our mascot and closest symbol for the next few months.  That afternoon, while grabbing a beer at an open-air cafĂ©, two of our newest European friends informed me that Amsterdam was only a few hours by train.  “Dan I know it’s more my thing, than your thing; but this is my thing!”  The rest of the night seems like a blur.  I think this is mainly due to the actual realization of how grand the trip really would be.  I do have pictures of crawling on statues of animals and smoking cigarettes with new friends on the steps in front of historic, huge buildings.  Again, when your adrenaline is pumping that hard it’s easy to lose the memories into a dream … and the next day didn’t help either.

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photo by: Vlindeke