Nothing screams Christmas season for someone who isn’t living in a winter climate like 30-degree weather and hailing snow. My short journey to Brussels, Belgium was a nice wakeup call for what I will be facing in just thirteen days when I am back home in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

I was told Brussels was an ugly city by many people, including travelers I have met who live in Belgium and even some who live in Brussels and I can’t say that they were wrong. They were absolutely correct. In Brussels there is not a ton to see and the main reason I wanted to go was to go to their world famous Christmas Market, if that wasn’t there I don’t think I would have gone, and I don’t think I will ever return...

We arrived late Tuesday night and were greeted by a sharp wind and dropping temperatures. It was a flashback to a normal winter that we haven't faced in Madrid, Spain. Upon arriving at our hostel we decided to go grab a quick dinner and rest up for the fun-filled day we had planned for tomorrow.

On Wednesday at 11:00 a.m. sharp we began our search for Belgian waffles and we found a restaurant called Grandmother’s Waffles, also known as Mokata, online and on our map that was supposed to be cheap and authentic. So we set out in the freezing cold to find us some good eats. Much to our demise it began to hail, then snow, then rain and after an hour of searching for the restaurant we ducked into the nearest, most authentic looking restaurant that advertised breakfast food we could find. This was a bad decision on our part as everyone was going into the same restaurant and we ended up waiting an hour and a half for our waffles. They were OK, but not quite as warm as I was hoping they would be. The chocolate was to die for though. 
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Andrea with her first real Belgian waffle in Brussels, Belgium.
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The result of waiting an hour for your first Belgian waffle.
After our breakfast turned lunch we headed to the Musical Instruments Museum and learned about the evolution of each musical instrument through geographic region and era. The main reasons the majority of the group wanted to go were a.) the cost: free every first Wednesday  and b.) the temperature, everyone wanted to warm up. I wanted to go because I am an Orch Dork and former Band Geek who played the alto saxophone and bassoon. It was really interesting as we had a cassette tape with us and each instrument you stepped up to synched with what would play in your ears. One thing that was very different about this museum was the fact that there were no English translations or explanations. I absolutely loved this because it reminded me of my time in Budapest, Hungary where I literally had to communicate with hand gestures. Before this trip my experience with language barriers was minimal and it was hard to adjust to the fact that there have been several language barriers but, as I said before, it is actually fun not knowing the local language because it really stretches your brain and makes you step out of your comfort zone. 
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Musical Instruments Museum in Brussels, Belgium.
After about an hour in the museum we left and headed towards the main attraction: the Christmas Markets. The maps for Belgium are not the easiest to follow so we wandered for a bit towards the general direction and soon bumped into the delicious smell of vin chaud (hot wine), bratwurst, hot bread, and grilled onions. The smell was overwhelmingly mouth-watering. Everyone was filled with joy when we saw the Christmas decorations and the colorful lights. We don’t have the merriment in Madrid like they do in Brussels and all of us couldn’t help but become a little giddy – even the boys. 

Once we became filled with the Christmas spirit we began to look for those unique gifts – the boys opted out from this for the most part. Along the first street were multiple vendors selling ornaments, winter clothes, and food. When we reached the end of the first street we were a little concerned that this was all there was going to be. We knew there was supposed to be an ice rink and Ferris wheel, but we couldn’t find it. After speaking with a vendor, who had the most gorgeous Indian ornaments, we walked a few blocks and came upon a winter wonderland. Four rows of shops lay before us and the Ferris wheel, lit up in the jolly green and red,  towered over the ice rink at the very end of the streets. We took our time in making our way to the end, wanting to look at all the vendors, weigh our options, take in the sight of Christmas, and embrace the sensation of the vin chaud on our cold hands. I am proud to say I found some wonderful gifts for my family and friends at the market. They were pricey but all handmade and one-of-a-kind. Cross your fingers they like them. 

After making a few purchases we splurged and went on a Ferris wheel ride. It was so incredibly cold and anyone who knows me I am fine with heights. Until I get up to the top. I was a little afraid and hand to hold on to my friends while we stopped at, wait for it, the top. The view was incredible though and we all were put into the Christmas spirit even more. After the chilly and fearful ride we ate dinner and Rachel and I, the true Minnesotans that we are, shared a ginormous bratwurst with fried onions, ketchup and another spicy sauce. It was gone within ten minutes. You could say we were a little hungry. 
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Rachel Arneson at the Christmas Markets in Brussels, Belgium.
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Amanda, Emily, Alissa, Tor and Rachel with their vin chaud.
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View of Market from Ferris wheel.
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Rachel and Andrea with their joint bratwurst for dinner.
By this time we were a tad bit chilly, the only time we had inside was at the museum and lunch so we decided to head to Café Delirium, a famous bar that is in the Guinness Book of World Records for having the most choices of beers at a single establishment. The total number of beers they offer, you may ask? The answer is 2,004. The bar even has a syllabus that lists all of the options of beer. Emily, one of the girls who seems to have friends studying abroad everywhere, was told by a friend who studied in Brussels that the tradition is to close your eyes, open the book to a random page, point to a beer without looking, and when you open your eyes the beer your finger has landed on is the beer that you order.

Apparently this isn’t the wisest decision according to the bartender. When I went up asking for my beer he asked how I had chosen it. Little to my knowledge he said my beer was really old and had the chance of tasting bad. Instead he brought out his favorite beer, Gouden Carolus Classic, and gave it to me. I am a big beer fan so it was an enjoyable experience. 
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Café Delirium, Brussels, Belgium.
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Larger than life beer caps on the ceiling of Café Delirium.
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Signs in the upstairs of Café Delirium.
Information on Gouden Carolus Classic*:
This Mechelen Emperor’s brew is a traditional beer of the fox hunting of Charles Quint but named after his golden coins, is still being brewed with dark, very well-balanced malts according to the classical infusion method. The aromatic malts and high fermentation process combines the warm roundness of wine with the light freshness of beer. Because of its high density of 19° Plato, the Gouden Carolus Classic is classified under ‘special beers’. It’s also highly appropriate for culinary purposes like stew, game and even sabayon. De-li-cious!

Type of beer: Dark special beer
Colour: Ruby red
Alcohol: 8,5% VOL
Hops: Exclusively Belgian hops

* Information from Brouwerij Het Anker  
We relaxed for about an hour, sitting in the old basement of the bar with larger than life beer caps on the ceiling and gabbed about our remaining time in Europe. It is still hard to wrap our minds around the fact that we are leaving so soon. Some of us are ready, some of us aren’t. I fall within the former. I haven’t seen my family in four months and spend the whole summer away from them. It is time to be reunited. 

The day took its toll on us and we decided to call it an early night and headed back to take warm showers and bundle up under the covers. The next day we repeated Wednesday due to a lack of a game plan. We headed back to the Markets, the only difference in the day is that we actually found Grandmother’s Waffles and it was delicious and cheap and went on a scavenger hunt for chocolate.

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The great Grandmother's Waffles Belgian waffle.
After devouring the waffles we went on a search for inexpensive chocolate for our family and friends. Some of us chose to purchase the expensive chocolates that are more like delicacies for locals and others, such as myself, stuck to the more affordable but still good quality chocolate. It will just have to be a surprise as to whom they are for! After the hunt for the perfect chocolates ended we made our final stop at the Christmas Market and called it quits to relax at a small café where it was warm for the remaining few hours until our flight later that night. 

All in all, Brussels was a great place to go for five things: waffles, chocolate, beer, the Christmas Market and a wake up call for the weather back home. I wouldn’t say it was good for anything else. I wouldn’t say it was a waste of money, that would be rather harsh, but part of me thinks that at times it kind of was. However, after talking to my father and listening to his wise words of wisdom, I realized that not every place I am going to travel to is going to tickle my fancy. Case in point: Brussels, Belgium.
 
Yes, I was just in Barcelona, Spain and now I am headed to Brussels, Belgium for a two-day trip to partake in some holiday shopping at the Christmas Markets and indulge in waffles. Sue me. Actually, please don't because I could not afford that at this point in my journey. 

We leave tonight on a Ryanair flight (gulp) and come back late Thursday evening, also on a Ryanair flight. Prayers are appreciated. We really do not have anything planned whatsoever for Brussels and in all honesty, that feels extremely nice in comparison to Barcelona where we went all day for two and a half days. 

We know we want to spend some quality time at the Christmas Markets, ice skate, look at the incredibly tall Christmas tree at the Markets and be reminded of Rockefeller Center, visit La Grande-Place (an UNESCO World Heritage Center site) and then go to the Musical Instrument Museum, where it is free the first Wednesday of every month. What a coinkydink! But other than that we do not have many plans and we all are content with that. 

Many of us have several papers to write so some of us decided that Thursday in between our check out time and catching our flight we are going to find a cafe with Internet and hunker down. Homework in Belgium? Why not!

This is my last trip outside of a day trip to Aranjuez, Spain on Friday and I am a little sad that my traveling has come to an end. However, I have been blessed to have such wonderful excursions and a great group of students to share them with. It is hard to believe that I have been to so many different countries and cities in my short time here and it is coming to an end so soon, but it is time to say goodbye to Europe and hello to my home in the United States. 
 
This week has been the longest week for me I think, that includes the grueling two weeks of mid-terms, and after a long week what do you do when you study abroad? Travel, of course. 

Tonight four other students and I are heading to Barcelona, Spain for the weekend. We will be taking the bus tonight and arriving in the city tomorrow bright and early around 8 a.m. and will have two full days until we leave Sunday afternoon to head back to our home base, Madrid. 

Emily, a friend of mine and student here, went to Barcelona with her family a few weeks ago and she gave us a list of things to see and try. Although I knew what I wanted to see before Emily's assistance, I can't help but think how nice it is to have advice from someone who has already traveled to a city and wants others to get the most out of the trip as much as they have.

Now, unlike France I think I will be a wee bit upset if I don't see most, if not all of these:
  • If I continue my streak of tripping over my own two feet because I am in awe of Gaudi's architecture I solemnly swear to not be embarrassed.
  • La Rambla: I hear people watching on this world-famous boulevard is incredible. As a journalist I feel obligated to partake in this and listen to the music and watch the dancers. 
  • Because I know I have the potential to be an Olympic athlete and just have not been discovered yet it is obligatory to visit the buildings from the 1992 Summer Olympic Games.
  • Sagrada Família is absolutely necessary, if I don't go here I will never admit I have been to Barcelona because it is the one place you need to go. 
  • In every country I sample the sweets so why should this time be any different? I plan on eating some delicious chocolates from Escribá and then ... 
  • ... Grab some chocolate y churros from La Granja
  • If there is time bargain shopping at La Roca Village just outside of the city would be great for the four of us girls, but Tor, the only male, may use his veto powers on this.   

As you can see I am OK with being a tourist this weekend. In addition to those listed above I also hope to follow in the footsteps of Emily and do the following:
  • Eat at the hole in the wall, La Xampanyeria and try the Rosat Cava that cost 2,30 euro for a bottle and a sandwich with ham, grilled onions, cheese and roasted red pepper. With a dash of the red sauce that is apparently on every table in the restaurant. And no, the red sauce is not ketchup. 
  • Check out Carrer de Ferran, just off of La Rambla, for local shopping and unique gifts.
  • Look more closely at Gaudi's architecture at Casa Milà, better known as La Pedrera and Casa Batlló, two of his most famous apartments in Barcelona.
  • And what wouldn't be a college study abroad trip without going out in the evening. We plan on going to a bar called Espit Chupitos, an experience that is impossible to pass up when you know the significance of the word "chupito" (shot) and when you hear that it is packed every weekend with locals. We will be taking Emily and her father's suggestion and trying the "Boy Scout" and "Harry Potter" shots. 

Overall, the weekend is going to be extremely fun but also incredibly cheap. We are coming to the end of our time here and we are all pinching pennies, as a result we have chosen a hostel that costs 20 euro per night with a dinner included, as well as choosing the cheapest means of transportation: the bus, costing 58 euros round trip. Now all there is to do is to embark on our journey this evening, sleep on the bus the whole night and see what Barcelona has in store for us! Stay tuned for a recap and a post on our upcoming trip to Brussels, Belgium! 
 
There has been a change in plans, no longer will Elise, my friend studying in Copenhagen, Denmark, and I be going to Geneva, Switzerland liked we planned earlier, instead we are going to Brussels, Belgium. We will shop at the Christmas Market, share a bed in our hostel, go ice skating and sledding (both offered near the Christmas Market) eat waffles on waffles on waffles with a side of chocolate and sample some delicious beer. That doesn't sound to shabby to me. 

I made a point in coming to Spain with a less rigid schedule and the vow to not plan out every last detail, to be more of a go with the flow type of person. So far it is going rather well. (Insert audible gasp by my mother here.)

As a more detailed explanation as to how my flexibility has changed I have created two before and after scenario. 

"Andrea, Switzerland is not going to work and we have to find another option:"
Three months ago: My jaw drops and I say, "You have got to be kidding me."  I then would have become extremely frazzled, distraught and frustrated. I would have entered an extreme planning mode, whipped out my planner, calculated which weekends work best with upcoming exams, trips, cost, hostel arrangements etc. 

Now, three months later: "No problem, lets see what we can find." (Insert an audible gasp by my friends who have thought this day would never come.)

Since I've adopted the more carefree, less pressure mentality it's been quite easy and pain free to change plans, make spontaneous decisions and at times just follow the crowd. 

In three weeks time I am heading to Barcelona to recoup after our midterm exams and the weekend before I believe another student in the program and I are taking a day trip to El  Escorial, The Valley of the Fallen and or Avila, a beautiful town Northwest of Madrid and coincidentally where my señora grew up. We haven't made any concrete decisions yet, but we have plenty of time.  

Day trip and we haven't made any concrete decisions:
Three months ago: This is not enough time to plan, what are we going to do? How are we going to get there? What time of the day should we leave? Get back? Oh my gosh this is all happening so fast! Are we sure we want to go to El Escorial and The Valley of the Fallen all in one day? Jeepers, this is stressful. 

Now: Okie doke, lets worry about it after exams and look it up a few days before we go. 

I personally laugh at this personal growth. All my life people have told me to take a chill pill and calm down. I thought that was absurd because who else was going to get things done? Well, the answer is still me but in a calmer, more convenient manner that benefits everyone involved. Who knew all it would take was half a contingent, the Atlantic Ocean and four months abroad to calm my worrywart side of me down. 

In summary, studying abroad gives you more experiences than you could ever imagine and it simultaneously allows you to develop as a person as long as you let it. At first I didn't want to let the experience change me because I was afraid of what it would change, but now I'm glad I did. And so is my warnout planner.