(Translation: Feeling like I’ve been hit by a (Contiki) bus).
It was decided that the night before my Contiki departure, we would have drinks at Christina and Co’s flat (post to come on them upon return, I promise). I spent the daytime doing admin (blog posting, yoga, a spot of grocery shopping, packing my bag, all while watching the April Fool’s Friends marathon) and had my bottle of red ready to go upon the girls’ return home from work. We turned the table in the lounge around and all nestled in, glasses of wine, crackers and cheese and a big punnet of grapes in the middle. There were the five flatties – Christina, Ash, Caitlin, Marinol, Steph – as well as Christina’s sister Hannah, another Hannah in a lass we all went to Baradene with, a friend of Steph’s from work, a younger lass called Maddy (whose older sister was one of my bestest buds back at Baradene), and later on Maddy’s other older sister Lucy (so fresh off the plane from NZ she was like a newly opened Ajax) as well as a lad from Auckland who had also just moved to London, Cam.
I had set plans of slowly making my way through my bottle of red, whereuon I would retire to slumber before my early rise to be at the Contiki Basement at 6am. But as always, Party Pop came out to play with all her friends, and instead I had quite the evening that didn’t involve a wink of sleep (sorry to all facetimed – think I had a fair few yarns with a number of people in my somewhat inebriated state). So suffice to say, on Uber ride into Russell Square at the crack of dawn I was still slightly (well, largely) sozzled.
I scouted out the group of youngsters with backpacks that were to be my travel crew over the next few weeks, where we did a swift meet and greet and I established a posy from the get go. Our tour guide Taryn arrived (funnily enough, she’d been one of the trainers for the SS7 just last week) and proceeded to passport check and weigh our luggage (very strict on the 20kg limit for hold bags). We then boarded the bus and were on our way.
So a little about the Contiki Trip I have chosen to partake in. It’s going to be my first longer organised tour (the longest I have been on before now was a two-day excursion back in Vietnam with Jaas), as before now I’ve always just sort of trotted about on my own. And what with having been in line to actually be a Contiki tour guide myself as well as the option still being open for next year, I was intrigued to go on a European Exploration Escapade while watching through a different sort of lens – that is, observing Taryn and her role and see if it really is for me.
So. The European Trail. First stop (well, start), pick up from London, whereupon we are to bus about to the Cliffs of Dover and ferry onto France; from there, a long coach journey through Belgium and onto Amsterdam for a two-night stay. After Dutching it up, we are to motor down the autobahn to Berlin for a further two days, before rolling through the “Florence of the North” (region of Dresden, the town of which was completely flattened in WWII) and onto Prague. Then Vienna, Krakow (cannot wait for Auschwitz), Budapest, Ljubljana (ditto), Venice, Rome, Vatican City, Florence, Lauterbrunnen in the Swiss Alps before a few days in Paris and a return to London. 23 days in total. Not ideal to go into when a full night lacking in sleep and not feeling fresh to death.
But I embraced the challenge, wolfed down a banana and attempted to get on point. (Did a fair job of accomplishing it too). It was about an hour or so from central London to the port, where I managed to get in a 20 minutes of shut eye (and miss Taryn’s info spiel, but no matter). Then we boarded the ferry for an hour-and-a-half sail across the English Channel sea.
So there are a good 48 of us aboard the bus, though not all are following the whole tour through; a fair few are getting dropped off in Vienna. On the ferry a group of us sat and yarned for a wee while, including my little posy of girls who were really sweet and waited for me to buy some Vaseline balm for my sorely chapped lips. I was hitting the wall in a big way so apologised to all if I came across as vague and a bit out of it, but luckily Post Party Pop is not a silent hungover soul; no, I yarned away and shot my spiels as per usual (though perhaps not with the same amount of zeal and animation) and we swapped tales and got to know each other a bit. (I’ll introduce some characters soon; as yet, I am unsure of whom will play a recurring part so don’t want to bombard you with names that may not come about again). (Except Sheridan, a Newscastle hailing lass with whom I was already planning our first full day in Amsterdam. She’ll be a continual mention throughout the travel tales, especially what with our plan to partake in 20 minutes of yoga each AM).
Upon sailing into the coast of France, we boarded back on the parked bus and drove off the ramp and onto the road. I kept my eyes open to snap a photo of our arrival on land (didn’t get one; it was a whole load of ships in a port, nothing that snap-worthy) then had great plans of a decent snooze. But such a scheme were thwarted upon Taryn announcing it was time for a meet and greet; we were to “speed date” our way through the bus and get to know our Contiki counterparts. I almost had a breakdown – mate, I needed to sleep – but I plastered on a welcoming(ish) grin (well, trying to from a grimace) and got to know the gang.
It was actually pretty fucking fun. We had two minutes to yarn to each seat bopper (I was extremely fortunate in the fact that as being seated by the window, I could just stay put) whereupon Taryn would yell, “Switch!” and the next one would move along. So many Aussies. So, so many Aussies. A couple of Americans. A handful of Canadians. One lad from Singapore, a lass from Taiwan. A number from the UK. And two other Kiwis.
It was amazing how many times my next seat cohort would hear me say a greeting and quick intro, and proceed to guess I was from Australia. As per the unwritten law of the good-natured rivalry between the trans-Tasman countries, I always responded with an aghast, “No way mate!”. (Although twice I got asked if I was Irish. Now that made me feel pretty fab. Was it possible that during my five days in Dublin, I picked up upon a slight lyrical lilt?). It was very interesting to hear a two-minute snippet of each person’s back stories and a few facts about them. I was in a writer’s wonderland; so many possible characters for a book, ranging from those I instantly took a liking to to those I wasn’t immediately quite so fond of. Some good banter, chucklesome chortles, and after a good forty-five minutes Taryn called time and I was able to hit unconscious and proceed to coma out.
I was awakened by a bellow that we had just passed through the border into Belgium, and a shiver of glee rippled through me and had me clapping out in joy. In undertaking the monumental Contiki assignment, my favourite country to write up on was not Italy or Greece or France, but Belgium. Why? Mate, I can’t put my finger on it myself. The fact it is split into three regions, all with differing jurisdictions and tongue spoken? Its location smack bang in the middle of Western Europe, hugged by France, Germany, Luxembourg and the Netherlands? Its capital of Brussels as the home of the EU and the NATO headquarters, known as the “Heart of Europe” and the unofficial capital of the continent? Or the sparkling city of Antwerp handling more than 90 per cent of the world’s raw diamonds in negotiating, polishing and distributing the gleaming gems? Mate, just a mixture of all. So bear with me as I note a fair few fun facts on Belgium.
Beforehand the only experienced I’d had with anything Belgium was my late teenage love of Belgian biscuits (back in the sugar craze days) (though they are actually Scottish, would you know) and the occasional seashell shaped chocolate at Christmastime. So looking into it through good old Google had me delighting in the newly acquired info and wanting to share it with all and sundry.
– In 1993 Belgium took on the status of a federal state with three distinct regions in Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels, with each given substantial economic powers. You see, Belgium is not a homogenous country; rather, the different areas mentioned above have their own distinct particularities. Dutch predominate in Flanders and French in Wallonia, with the two merging and being bisected by an imaginary east-west line at Brussels which is claimed by both.
– There are three official languages of the country: Flemish, a local Dutch dialect, which is spoken by just under 60 per cent of the population, mainly to the north in the Flanders area; French, by just under 40 per cent of the population, as the tongue in the southern Wallonia region; and German, spoken by the remaining few percentage residing in a small area of eastern Wallonia. The diverse linguistics is a result of the country being controlled by different foreign powers for centuries on end.
– Bordering the Netherlands, there is in fact one town up the north end called Baarle, which is separated into two municipalities – the Belgian Baarle-Hertog and the Dutch Baarle-Nassau. An international border makes like a jogger and runs through the town, but rather than be straight up or curved, it is marked by white crosses and metal studs all higgedly piggedly – they take no heed to houses, streets or gardens, scattering the 26 regions of land and seeming it either Dutch or Belgian. In fact, there are some homes where the houses themselves are half in each country, with the nationality of those within depending on what side of the border the front door opens out to. With taxes differing between the two countries, you could literally go shopping between two tax regimes in a single street until the euro came into play (or should that be pay?)
– Belgium takes out the title for the highest density of roads and railroads in the world, and is third for most vehicles per square km in the world (trailing just behind the Netherlands and Japan). The resulting number of lights stringing about the roading leads the Belgian highway system to be the only man-made structure visible from the moon at night. And if the railroads were all on track as one, they would total 4078km, the longest network in the world.
– Belgian is a monarchy, being popular and hereditary, with the Philippe Marie taking throne on July 21, 2013. It was only in 1991 that the Belgian parliament approved a constitutional amendment to allow female members of the royal family to succeed in reign, but no matter gender the monarch would always be known as “King”.
– Think Belgium, think chocolates; the country is number one in the world for exporting it, with 220,000 tonnes annually – that is 22kg per person in the 11.2million population. Praline chocolates were invented by one Brussels lad by the name of Jean Neuhaus in 1912, and out of all duty free chocolate shops around the globe, that in Brussels International Airport sells the most (especially in seashell form).
– And in common with myself, Belgium is renowned for its waffles (and I waffle on). The three main types – Brussels, being on the larger side and lighter in colour, eaten with strawberries and ice cream; galettes being thin and soft and usually a breakfast go-to with jam; Liege, cookie-like and eaten like a biscuit – are available all over the show in sprinkle, hail and chocolate dip form.
– Mate, Belgians are all in for their fries. A common misconception is that fries originated from France (I.e., “French fries”) but in actuality, they’re all Belgian baby! The name came about when foreign soldiers in Belgium saw Wallonians chewing down on “frites” – thus, the somewhat misnamed potato chips. They are traditionally presented as cornet de frites – that is in cone-shaped white cardboard with sauces splattered on top – as well as mitrailette – fries in a baguette married with sauces and meat. And they are such a beloved edible that the majority of Belgian homes have their own deep fryer to prep up tattys themselves, sauces galore and all.
– You can’t bring up Belgium and not bring up beer; with more than 11,000 varieties, Belgians pour back a good 84litres a year. Almost every style of beer has its own particular, uniquely shaped glass or drinking vessel, which is considered to improve its flavour as well.
– And on the shelf of alcohol, you can’t not mention jenever – the gin has been getting every one in the spirit (yes I did) for more than 500 years.
– And there’s always got to be an HP connection in the case of anything I love – a newly started sport in Belgium? (Wait for it….). QUIDDITCH. Not even pulling your wand. Having come into inception in 2013, there are seven active teams throughout the country with the EUROPEAN QUIDDITCH CUP (needs to be in capitals to put across the enormity of this fun fact) held there in 2014. The – get this – Brussels Quaffles came third with the Deurne Dodos coming up sixth. And it gets even better: the national team are called the Belgian Gryffins. The rules follow those in actual HP, just minus the magic; two teams of seven players are mounted on broomsticks, with the snitch being a tennis ball hanging in a long sock in the shorts of an impartial Brussels Qwaffles p sort of rules minus the magic; two teams of seven players are all mounted on broomsticks and cavort about a hockey-rink-sized pitch with them clamped between their legs. The “snitch” is a tennis ball inside a long sock, hanging from the shorts of an impartial official dressed in yellow. To score points, chasers or keepers must get the quaffle – a slightly deflated volleyball – into one of three opposing hoops. And there’s beaters throwing balls at chasers, two seekers set on snatching the snitch, games dependant on the fluttering flying ball (or bouncy yellow one in a sock in this case) being caught….. Like I said, exactly as in the wizarding world, just not all up in the air.
– Sales in shops only take place twice a year, with soldes periode occurring in January and July. This is the only time massive markdowns are allowed; law forbids discounting stock at any other time of the year.
– Some famous Belgians? Well, Audrey Hepburn for one. Not many know this but the film and fashion icon was actually Brussels born, spending her childhood bounding between Belgium, England and the mighty Netherlands. Tony Parker, the NBA superstar perhaps best known for his desperate marriage to Eva Longoria; Like Mike, one half of the brotherly duo Dimitri Vegas; many famous artistic figures, especially in the 15th century with Jan van Eyck, Hans Memling, Hugo van der Goes and Pieter Brueghei.
– Yes, Brussel sprouts actually do come from Belgium – funnily enough, from Brussels would you believe – where they have been being grown for more than 400 years.
– Belgium has one of the lowest proportions of McDonalds in the developed world with a good seven times fewer than the USA and less than two times that of France.
– The BMI calculator (Body Mass Index) was of Belgium-born brainchild Adolphe Quetelet; Belgium was home to the first European casino back in 1763 in the way of la Redoute; it is home to one of the world’s oldest shopping arcades with the Galleries St Hubert opening in Brussels back in 1847; the saxophone started tuning in 1846, invented by Adolphe Sax; the first newspaper was printed in the country in 1605; The Smurfs are a Belgian invention centred on the fictional colony of small blue creatures that live in mushroom-shaped houses in the forest, The Smurfs was first introduced as a series of comic characters by comic artists Peyo in 1958 – originally known as “Les Schtroumpfs”, with the creator deeming them this after being out for dinner one night and being unable to remember the word for salt. Each of the blue tykes wears Phrygian caps, which came to represent freedom during the modern era; Tintin, the do-gooding journalist unearthing crime and corruption all over the globe, is also Belgium born – having been in existence for more than 70 years, more than 200million comic strips on the literary lad have been sold worldwide; and perhaps the biggest claim to fame, the biggest baby in the world was born in December 2006 in Knokke, weighing 5.4kg and measuring a good 57cm long.
So yes, Belgium. One of the top of the list to go to – unfortunately, on tour we only got to drive through it seeing no more than copious amounts of country side (and the insides of my eyelids). But I felt a great kinship with the country, reciting fun facts in my head (and to sleeping Sheridan beside me).
And as we crossed over the border into the Netherlands, I felt a great tremor of vim; I was in the fatherland, the great Holland I hailed from, cheese and clog country. Time to cause some Amsterdamage.

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