Thursday, June 13, 2013

No Spain for me this trip

I am remiss to not have noted earlier how helpful people have been in Brussels to me, from the guy at the hotel reception who told me a certain street was great to walk down and look at, but under no circumstances should I eat at any restaurants there (tourist traps), the elderly Arab gentlemen who helped me use the Brussels metro for the first time (I didn't understand where to insert my one-journey card in the gate, and he could see me struggling), the young Arab guy who sold me a phone for this trip and conversed with me in German, Spanish and English, and on and on.

Wednesday, I thought I still had a flight to Barcelona in the afternoon with Vueling, since the airline had sent me NOTHING otherwise, there was nothing on Google News, and Twitter was quite silent on there being any problems at Brussels airport. BBC was saying that there were problems at some airports, but several Internet searches never mentioned any problems.

So I checked out of the hotel, kept my luggage at the front desk and walked around my part of Brussels. It's actually quite a nice city - okay, it's not anywhere as pretty as, say, Krakow, but it's certainly nicer than Geneva or Bonn. I loved all the Art Nouveau architecture - I know Europeans don't find them special, but I do (I know, I know, I'm a "typical American," as was pointed out to me the day before). While I might not make a special effort to come to Brussels after this trip, I wouldn't mind at all coming again.

I also wish I hadn't forgotten to make fun of my European counterparts yesterday regarding their dietary needs. So I will now: several have gone glutton free, which they all announced dramatically, and there was a point where they were all going on and on about what they could and couldn't have, to the point that it felt like they were each trying to outdo the other in terms of "special needs." I couldn't decide if it was more ilke an episode of Portlandia or the EU Bureaucrat version of a certain Monty Python skit

I've taken only 2 or 3 photos so far. I just didn't feel like taking pictures. But have a look at Google images for photos of Brussels - there are some lovely sites here. I'll upload my photos when I'm back in the states.

So, after a nice day of walking around, a nice lunch at Au Saint d'Hic (I just love local places where I'm completely out of place), I leisurely headed to the Metro, taking it to the Zuidstation/Gare du Midi (just two stops away) and getting the train to the airport. None of which I would have done had I known my flight was cancelled and there was no hope of leaving that day or probably even Thursday for Barcelona - things that WERE known by the airlines but not emailed out.

So, I got to the airport and TA DA, there was the sign that the flight was cancelled. And the long, long line at the counter where we were supposed to get guidance. Since I thought the strike was just a day, and I was going to be stuck in Brussels just for one extra day, I was fine in line - calm, circumspect, entertaining a baby so he'd stop crying. Plus, I've never had a flight canceled that didn't have one later the same day that I got on, so I just thought, hey, this was bound to happen, you can wait a day, no prob. But as I traveled through the line, some folks that talked to the counter folks walked back and told people what they'd heard. And things weren't looking good. When I got to the counter, what those earlier people had warned was confirmed:
  • they could book me on a late night flight the next day but had NO guarantees it wouldn't be cancelled as well - which means I would have had to hang out at the airport for hours the next day and hope I could find a hotel at, oh, 10 p.m. at night if the flight did get canceled. 
  • they could book me on a flight on Friday, which had a better chance of actually happening, HOWEVER, there was a chance another country could strike and affect my return flight from Barcelona on Sunday morning - meaning I would miss my flight back to the USA. 
So, as much as it broke my heart, I canceled both flights. Even hopping a train to Barcelona, which, according to Internet searches, takes anywhere from 10 - 17 hours and can involve up to five train changes, could have left me stranded in Barcelona if my flight had been canceled - no one could say it wouldn't happen.

How do I feel about the strike? I'm not angry at the strikers. The European Union should have consulted with workers, not just made the decision to make the EU one air space without participation in the decision-making with those that would be adversely affected. I'm fascinated that the EU, when it funds international initiatives, insists on local consultations/participation in decision-making in Africa, Asia, etc., yet doesn't employ these same activities for EU citizens. The EU is really messing up on the whole citizen-participation thing - something that a government MUST do in order to remain viable. Mark my words…

 I bought Internet access at Rent to Connect, on the second floor, right across from the official information booth for the airport. The guy that runs the place was AMAZING. When I got logged off prematurely with still 45 minutes paid for, he retrieved them and gave me 15 more minutes. He sold me time for my cell phone - and when I told him what I needed it for, he talked me down from 20 euros to 10. Yes, HE TALKED ME DOWN in what I should pay. He helped me make a call because I couldn't figure it out. And he told me where to find the shuttle for the hotel I'd booked. When people treat you like that, how can you be in a bad mood?

I decided I'd take the shuttle to the airport hotel I'd already booked for Sunday evening -- ibis budget hotel Brussels Airport. If they didn't have a room, no prob - they had free Internet, something the airport did NOT have, and I could use the net to find another hotel. Went down to the bus stop and had no idea when the bus would be arriving, because the time table was at the eye level of someone who is 8 or 9 feet tall - I kid you not. A French guy wanted to read it so he climbed up on a bench, and even then it wasn't at eye level and the text was too tiny for him to read. Oh, incompetence, you can be sooo creative… The French guy and his co-worker had driven 250 kilometers from France to take the flight from Brussels to Barcelona. Watched a fight almost break out among people waiting for a shuttle to their hotel - more people than the shuttle could take, so two had to wait. It was ugly. The exchange was all in French - though I'm pretty sure that, even so, I know what was said. 

The bus arrived after an almost hour wait, and I got to the hotel, and was greeted by super-friendly receptionists. I laughed out loud when I saw the room. It's like if Ikea did a room, accenting it in their oh so bright pastels and cheapest furniture. But it was clean, the bed was comfortable, the TV had an amazing number of channels in a variety of languages, the Internet was lightening fast compared to the Hotel A La Grande Clochem (but it cut off every now and again), and I could have played with the shower forever - the shower head lit up the water in color, based on how hot or cold the water was! It was one of the most entertaining water and light shows I've seen in a while. I wasted a LOT of water. 

I spent two hours corresponding on Facebook, trying to decide whether to go to Bonn or Brussels and reaching out to folks. Unfortunately, my friends in Bonn were available only for a supper one day here, or another two days later, meaning I would have spent many hours alone - and I think I've spent enough time in Bonn on my own, thanks. So, I decided I'd go to Antwerp.

This airport hotel, and the other hotels nearby, are truly in the middle of no where. The only things around are high tech companies and farm fields. Your only option for food is the machines in your hotel lobby or the restaurant at the more "upscale" Ibis hotel. So I walked over, free-drink-ticket-with-entree in hand. The service was awful - it took probably 20 minutes before anyone took my order, and half the entrees were no longer available. And once the food came - my Gawd, it was one of the most wretched meals I've had in a restaurant. It wasn't inedible - but it was all prepared elsewhere, days or weeks ago, then put together and heated up. I was starving, but could only finish half of everything. I've had much, much better meals on airplanes. I suspect Sodexo was involved in this travesty.

And yet - I wasn't in a bad mood. I had a place to stay. I had options. The trip wasn't working out the way I wanted, but I've traveled enough to know that such is a part of travel, and you have to make the best of it. As long as you have options and a credit card, you're okay while traveling.

At 1 a.m., I forced myself to turn everything off and try to sleep. I really thought I'd conquered jet lag, but the night before and this one proved otherwise.

More later.

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