Tuesday, March 30, 2010

More Than Just Sprouts

In the British media (especially the red-top variety) Brussels is the bogeyman - any and every possible problem or affliction is blamed on this faceless, grey, Machiavellian entity that is "Brussels". And even though I'm quite a europhile and give little credence to the ridiculous, paranoid scaremongering that passes for news in the UK, I wasn't expecting much from this city that, in my mind, was little more than one big office block for eurocrats. How mistaken I was. Brussels has easily moved into my list of top cities (not that I keep such a list, but if I did then it would be there).

The Grande Place in Brussels, one of the world's great city squares.

Friday, March 26, 2010

In Bruges

Being in Bruges did not feel like the start of a hardcore round-the-world odyssey. It's too clean, and civilised, and dainty, and picturesque (and nothing I could write would add to the eulogies that already, justly, abound). It really is no wonder that it's Belgium's top tourist destination with its myriad canals and immaculately-preserved medieval buildings. Of course, like any good traveller I had done my research on my intended destination by watching the film In Bruges. And despite my disappointment at the lack of dwarfs and gangster shoot-outs, I was lucky enough to be hosted by some lovely locals who showed me some of their favourite spots around town and local drinking spots. Every British student worth their salt knows that Belgium is the land of beer, with innumerable varieties (especially of the super-strong type). However what's less well-known is the culture of beer drinking, which is almost an art-form here. It's not about the quantity, but the quality. Belgians take the time to taste and enjoy their beers, and at the better establishments, not only will each beer have its own dedicated type of glass to enhance its flavour but you will also be served a variety of complementary nibbles and cheeses, each also tailored to your specific beer.

A typical canal-side view of Bruges' old town, with its iconic belfry looming in the background.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Erik The Unready

Well, the time of my departure has crept up rather sneakily and far quicker than I had imagined and in a few hours time I will be heading off into the unknown (well, OK, Belgium, but still...). I've said my final farewells, an experience far more wrenching than I had expected; I've taken care of most of my personal affairs and put them in some semblance of order; and I've packed my bag for tomorrow morning (which included some very last-minute purchases as I realised I was missing some important essentials). The great thing about packing for a trip of many months is that you don't need any more stuff than when you pack for just 1 month. So I've managed to distill all the possessions I need down to 17.5kg, including the clothes I will be wearing tomorrow. So what do you need for a trip like this? Below is my final checklist:

- 1 x rucksack
- 1 x day pack
- 1 x tent
- 1 x sleeping mat (cheap polystyrene type)
- 1 x sleeping bag (3 seasons)
- 1 x sleeping bag liner
- 1 x windbreaker/rain jacket
- 1 x fleece jumper
- 3 x trousers (thick, medium and light fisherman's pants)
- 6 x T-shirts
- 6 x underwear
- 6 x socks
- 1 x thermal base layer
- 1 x walking shoes
- 1 x sandals
- 1 x toiletries
- 1 x towel
- 2 x hats (1 beenie and 1 broad-brimmed)
- 1 x headscarf
- 2 x water bottles
- 1 x walking stick
- 1 x camera and accessories (batteries, memory cards, etc.)
- 1 x hard drive (to store photographs)
- 1 x first aid kit
- 1 x random travel literature
- 1 x diary
- Sundries (knife, compass, Duck tape, torch, pens, cash, passport, etc.)

One thing I won't have to worry about though is actually getting to Belgium. I had initially planned to hitch to Dover and cross on a ferry; I had even researched the best places in London to get a ride to the coast. But on my last day at work my colleagues totally surprised me by not only getting me a Eurostar ticket, but getting a first class one. It was a lovely gesture, and one that was totally unexpected, although it does somewhat run counter to my principles of travelling on the cheap - in fact I don't think I've ever travelled first class before. Ah well, at least it will be a different experience from my last long-distance train journey.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

First Stop...

It's inevitable that many of the conversations that I'm having lately revolve around my impending trip and my plans for it. Possibly the most common question is: " so where are you off to first?" To which I have to give the thoroughly underwhelming answer of "Belgium". This often leaves people perplexed, as grand, multi-year odysseys are supposed to be to far-flung, exotic destinations like Patagonia, India or Kenya. However, despite not being particularly dogmatic about how I travel there is one thing I am adamant about: I will do my utmost to avoid flying. It's not that I'm afraid of flying, but I dislike the idea of being airlifted somewhere without experiencing what lies in between, as that way you don't see how the land gradually changes, or the customs subtly alter, or people's faces vary. It leads to a disconnect because it's harder to appreciate and understand a place - its history, its traditions, its customs - if you can't put it in context.

Anyway, I have decided to forsake flying for as long as possible (I have the time) and so will be zig-zagging my way east overland, trying to take in as many new sights and sounds and tastes as I can along the, which means that my first stop will be Belgium. Funnily enough, despite its proximity, and the fact that I've driven through the country on countless occasions, I've never actually taken the time to stop in Belgium (except perhaps to go to the toilet at some motorway service station). And that's a shame, because Belgium is a fascinating country in its own right: a modern creation that is split down the middle along ethno-linguistic political lines, home to some fantastic food and beer, the cradle of European comic culture, and home to the de facto capital of Europe. Not bad for such a small place.

So, the countdown has begun and I might have the think about packing at some point soon...

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Loosening The Moorings

As my impending departure looms ever closer I still don't think it's properly sunk in yet; at least not emotionally. However, I have spent the past couple of weeks trying to get my affairs in order: putting my bank accounts and investments in order, getting a dentist check-up, cancelling my mobile phone, setting up proxy voting for the upcoming elections, researching places I plan to visit, seeing Avenue Q in the West End (I had been wanting to see it for quite some time and my departure gave me the requisite kick up the backside to go ahead and do it), arranging travel insurance (there aren't many companies that will ensure for periods greater than 18 months), saying my farewells, and trying to find a paper that might publish my blog posts so that I may earn a little on the side whilst travelling (still no positive replies, so if you know of any publishers who might be interested then feel free to get in touch...). I'm sure I will forget something fundamental though, I always do.

Despite my relatively light social footprint - I'm not tied into a formal rent contract and neither do I pay utility bills, etc. - disentangling myself from daily life is still quite a complicated process, with far more commitments tying me down than I could have imagined. I shudder to think of the mountain of mail that will await me on my return.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Colleague Engagement

I was quite apprehensive telling people at work that I was a) quitting and b) heading off travelling for a few years. I am lucky to be genuinely fond of the people I work with and so I thought they might perceive this unexpected move as something of a betrayal. In the end it turned out that it was neither that unexpected (which, in hindsight, is not such a surprise when I only take one 4-week holiday a year and end up complaining that it's far too short a time) nor viewed at all badly. Everyone has been very supportive of my decision and in fact it turns out to have touched something of a nerve with some people who confided in me that such a trip was a dream of theirs too, but that they were too worried about the long-term consequences - career, finances, family, etc. - to go through with it. It is certainly something I can understand and was wrestling with too, but perhaps I am more reckless than most and have a lower perception of risk. Ah well, I suppose time will whether it's justified.