On the day I quit my job I booked a solo trip to Europe. (Brussels and Amsterdam, to be exact.) It was part celebratory gift, part “what the fuck have I done” freak out distraction. I had accumulated hundreds of thousands of frequent flyer miles and hotel points over the past two decades of business travel and drained my accounts for first-class accommodations across the board. Having traveled abroad solo a few times before, I knew that the peace-of-mind that sitting in the front of the plane and a hotel car pick-up upon arrival gave me was, frankly, priceless.
Since I did literally fly to Brussels, it feels odd to say that the plane, like, FLEW…but it did. We made it in just a smidge over six hours — which is almost an hour faster than usual. Barely enough time to let the xanax and free champy do its thing. (Note: I am not what you would call a “strong flyer”.) Before I knew it, we were pulling up in front of the Conrad Brussels and I was fervently praying to the travel gods that they would let me check in early, because nothing sucks more than roaming around a foreign city at eight o’clock in the morning while your body and brain are yelling at you going “DUDE, IT’S 2 A.M. — WHY ARE WE NOT SEEPIES!” (That is not a typo, J and I call sleeping “seepies”, as in, “It’s 9:30, time to go seepies.” I know, nothing sexier than a middle-aged couple using baby talk, right? To be fair, I pretty much force J to call it that so if there is anyone to mock, it’s me.)
Luckily, they had plenty of rooms available (apparently the last week of August is deadsville) and I was able to check in right away. I splurged on a room with a terrace overlooking the courtyard to assure I wouldn’t have to deal with street noise and would have access to fresh air whenever I wanted. Ten minutes after checking in, I was crashed out on the king bed snoring like a drunken sailor.
After the mother of all naps, I savored a quick espresso on the terrace (the Conrad offers Nespresso machines in their rooms, which is brilliant) and went in search of whatever I happened to find. I like to pretty much fly by the seat of my pants when it comes to sight-seeing. I don’t like itineraries and prefer to walk around the city until I stumble onto something “soopehrrr kewl”. (I am mocking the French here, in case you are wondering.)
Brussels is compact and easy to navigate. It’s very much a walking city with one glaring exception — they seem to have missed the memo on traffic lights. Within five minutes of leaving the hotel I was living my worst nightmare — having to step out into oncoming traffic in the hope that the stampede of fiats and minis would stop in time to let me cross. As a New Yorker, you learn to never, ever, EVER step out into traffic because no one will ever, EVER stop for you. Fortunately, the Brusselois also never got the memo on how to be a road-ragie douchebag, because the minute you step off the curb at an intersection cars magically glide to a stop to let you cross. And while I never really trusted the process completely — I mean what if a New Yorker had rented a car while on vacation — I did eventually get used to it.
The early afternoon weather was gorgeous. Sunny, warm and breezy. So I took advantage and made my way toward the Parc de Bruxelles. On my way over I passed the Royal Palace and since it’s only open to the public a few weeks out of the year, decided it would be prudent to stop in. So glad I did….
The palace is built in the style of Louis XIV, and while it is no Versailles, it is rather pretty. I love walking the rooms of historic homes and palaces — imagining them filled with lords and ladies from long ago living their daily lives. Unlike museums, I feel that time is thinner in these places. The rooms somehow retain a faint imprint of the human beings who once loved, laughed, cried and fought within their walls. Since you aren’t allowed to touch anything as you make your way through, I always make sure to run my hand briefly along the banisters whenever I take the stairs. It is within that small moment that I find myself fully connected to the past, because I know for certain that centuries ago the world’s kings and queens had run their hands along those very spots.
While each room was more breathtaking than the last, nothing could have prepared me for the beauty of the Mirror Room. My heart literally fluttered in my chest when I first caught site of the bejeweled ceiling. Its beauty wasn’t just incandescent. It didn’t just glow. It breathed. Which makes total sense when you consider the fact THAT THE ENTIRE FUCKING THING WAS MADE OUT OF BUGS.
1.4 million wing cases of Thai jewel beetles, to be exact. It was all I could do to not run screaming from the room. I am not exactly what you would call “comfortable” with insects. In the few moments that it took for me to exit stage left, I had already imagined having one of those disgusting things fall into my hair and then having to be taken to a back room somewhere for crying hysterically while beating myself about the head.
Luckily, the rest of the day remained bug free. I explored the park. Had an early dinner outside, and then took a long, leisurely walk back to my hotel. Where I spent the next five hours toggling between the BBC channel and a german version of MTV2. Jet lag’s a bitch.