A: A lovely local lager, the world’s best chocolate, a ginormous yummy bratwurst, 8 oz. of water; Q: What does 5 bucks buy you in Brugge, Belgium? (or “A glimpse into the grumpier side of travel”)

Ciao Readers!  And Happy Birthday week to me (and Brian, and Joseph)!

Lest you think that my travel tales suffer from rose-colored-glasses syndrome, today’s post will only be partly about fun and deliciousness, with some grumpiness thrown in for good measure.  While it’s really hard to have a bad time traveling the world (seriously, you’re on vacation, you’re seeing famous sites, you’re eating yummy food – how bad can it be, even with the travel delays and noisy hotel rooms?!?), once in a while your mojo just gets off.

Brugge, Belgium has been (and still is) one of both Steve and my favorite places.  It’s got that great old world charm, it’s small and friendly and walkable, it’s quirky and quaint, and it has the BEST chocolate on the face of the planet.  We first came here in 2008 during our grand tour; at that time the movie “In Bruges” had just come out and Brugge really hadn’t been discovered by tourists yet.  Since then I think Brugge has started suffering from what I call “Rick Steves Syndrome.”  (For those of you unfamiliar, Rick Steves is a great PBS travel host, and we honestly owe a great deal of our travel skills to his guidance, though his following can be somewhat cult-like).  We first discovered this syndrome in the Cinque Terre in Italy – what used to be a sleepy gem on the sea that only locals knew about is now a place teaming with tourist, replete with “Rick Steves Recommends” signs hanging in restaurant windows.  Brugge, especially the prices in its restaurants, seems to be similarly suffering from its “outing” by Mr. Steves.

Syndromes aside, we did have a fabulous time here – we stayed in an apartment in a quirky historical tower, strolled (and ate at) the fun Christmas market, enjoyed a great New Year’s eve (future post), toured the windmills when everything was closed on New Year’s Day, hung out at a local pub, ate amazing fries (again – see Steve eat the same fries in 2008, below), and indulged in what we consider to be the world’s best chocolates (from Dumon Chocolatier).  We also hit a little bump in the road, in the form of an eight once bottle of water costing 4.50 euro (5 bucks).

Usually when we travel we mostly leave our food choices to serendipity, but when there are special things we want to eat, I do a little research and maybe even make a reservation (like at the place in Rouen). Since mussels is on my “must do” list in Brugge, I researched some places to enjoy them.  I found De Vier Winden, and even knowing it was located in the main tourist square, Frommer’s assured me it was “INEXPENSIVE” and has “amazingly cheap meals considering its location” (seriously Frommers, you have way too much money and too little perspective if you think this place was cheap).  Now, to be fair to this restaurant, despite being a touristy place, the food is actually quite good. Couple that with a waiter who speaks 7 languages (I tried out French and Italian with him) and a great view of the medieval buildings from the windows, and you have the makings of a lovely time. Until you try to order tap water (or more specifically, in very polite French, “l’eau de robinet”).

Now, you must understand that all over Europe people order and get tap water – it is a common occurrence (not just one of those things only silly American tourists do). While I was willing to fork over the way-too-high prices for our mussels and steak, I had to draw the line at 5$ for an 8 oz. bottle of water (and since it arrives with the cap already removed, I don’t think my suspicion that it IS actually tap water is completely unfounded). You can see the tiny bottle in the picture, below, behind my admittedly delicious mussels. It was at this point that the waiter informed me (in English) that it is forbidden by “the boss” to provide tap water, and why would you, seeing as they have such high quality bottled water (fyi, you can buy these same bottles of water at every convenience store for about 45 cents). While I was tempted just to cancel my order for water all together (and drink the bottle in Steve’s backpack), I could see that Steve was getting increasingly uncomfortable with my (admitted) further questioning of the denial of tap water, so I caved. At this point, Steve was left feeling (understandably) that I’d “harshed the buzz” of our one splurge meal in Brugge, and I was still feeling pretty grumpy about being gouged like a stupid tourist. Needless to say, a memorable meal for the wrong reasons.

So, we were compelled to have a heart-to-heart about “water-gate,” our respective reactions to it, and so on. However, once the discussion was over, I decided to turn this into a running joke the remainder of the trip. Every time we would eat something cheap and yummy, which was most things (the bratwurst pictured, herrings sandwiches (3 euros), frites, a kebab, etc.), I would say something like “Aw, I could have gotten 8 oz. of tap water for the price of this giant sandwich!” in feign disappointment (and laugh maniacally at my own joke). After a while even Steve had to laugh. Thus, the title of this post.

Photos of Brugge, the infamous water, the more delicious things 5 bucks brings, our cool apartment, and more – Enjoy:


Quirky Italian Red-Tape

Italy has LOTS of bureaucracy, much of which makes no sense.  This is not just me speaking from an ethnocentric point of view, this is what I have been told time and time again by Italians I have met (and have begun to experience).   I am sure once we move we will get to experience even more first-hand (which I will of course explain, with photos where appropriate), but for now I will share some of the quirkier red-tape I have already encountered (disclaimer – this is from personal observation, if it is not the “official” rules, feel free to correct me!)…

Stamp your ticket or pay a fine! In almost every train (except where you have a seat reservation) and on all buses, not only do you need to have a ticket, you need to validate it by stamping it in a machine (in trains, you do so in the station; in buses on board).  Unfortunately, not all tourist have read Rick Steves’ travel advice and realize the importance of validation.  If you don’t validate and get caught, it’s a €50 fine (“multa”).  No exceptions, no excuses.  Not only are you given a fine, but you are expected to pay it IMMEDIATELY.  On one bus in Rome we watched as the “bus police” told a tourist who did not have cash on him that they would accompany him to a bancomat (ATM), and sure enough, they escorted him off at the next stop!  If, as happened to me several times, the validation machine at the train station is not working (there’s lots at big stations, so we’re talking dinky ones), you need to actively search out the conductor to validate your ticket before they come around to check.  You are now officially forewarned!

Receipts, receipts, everywhere –  In Italy, receipts are MANDATORY.  Not only are they mandatory for the merchant to give (restaurant, mini-mart, veggie-stand, you name it), but they are mandatory for YOU – the consumer!  You must hold onto your receipt (ask for one if it’s not given) or you can be fined!!!  This obsessive need for receipts is one of the reasons for the next quirky cultural aspect…

No Garage Sales –  there are no garage sales in Italy.  A couple of weeks ago when I had posted about our “moving sale,”  my Italian teacher (who checks on my blog for topics to discuss in our Skype classes) asked me about these kinds of sales in the U.S.  She seemed genuinely surprised when I explained that you can find one on just about any block every weekend everywhere.  From what I understood (remember, this was all in Italian), if you wanted to have such a sale in Italy you’d need to 1) apply for a permit, 2) give all of your customer receipts (.25 receipt for that used cup anyone?), 3) file forms afterwards and 4) pay taxes.  So, while it is theoretically not impossible, you can see why it’s not done.  Apparently, if you want to sell anything in Italy you take it to a consignment store.

Your Choice – 1 or 4 year lease ONLY –  Okay, I still really don’t understand this one, but have been dealing with it on our new apartment.  All lease contracts in Italy are not only signed, but then registered with the government and only two types are acceptable – a year-long lease or a 4-year lease.  You might wonder (as I did) – “what if I know I want to live in the apartment for two years?”  Well, you have two choices there as well – take a one year lease, then another one-year lease, OR take a 4-year lease and then break it in a perfectly legal way (by giving 3 months notice).  I was very leery about a 4-year lease when we know we may only be in Italy for 2 years (Steve’s initial contract), but every single Italian person with whom I consulted (including our realtor) assured me that this is done all the time and totally normal since you are forced into a 4 year lease whether that’s your intention or not.  Logical, yes…?

There are many more areas where you must jump through hoops – I already told you about my efforts (customs forms, fees) to get a small box I had mailed from the US; there is also the matter of needing an official “fitness letter” from a doctor before you are allowed to participate in any organized runs (5k’s on up).  The scary part is I am pretty certain that I have only scratched the surface of red-tape with these experiences/information.  Stay tuned for more stories (which I am sure will be much funnier in hindsight than while I am experiencing them)!

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