Driving in Belgium: A Sloth’s Nightmare

I am not much of a driver; my preferred modes of transport include walking, biking and piggybacking. I went to driving school for about 1.5 years before getting my license in 2008. After that, the times I have been the driver could probably be counted on two hands. As that results in about one practice drive per year, I’ve never developed a routine. As soon as I get my hands on car keys, my stress level soars. So far, so good: every car is still intact and nobody has died yet.

IMG_2319  Snail pace, best pace

By now, I can sort of handle driving in Finland, but driving in Belgium kept me in constant fear. As already mentioned in a previous post, C left us his car to use. Most people would be happy about such an opportunity, but for me, it was just an unfortunate matter of practical arrangements: we couldn’t have made it to the wedding reception with public transport. Since Chef doesn’t have a driver’s licence, there were very few options left… The driver, c’etait moi. The morning of the wedding, we hopped in the car and I just hoped for the best. My wish was not entirely fulfilled.

The drive to the church consisted, for the most part, of straight highway, and I had no problems there. The real nightmare only began once we got to the village of Neufchâteau. In Belgian villages, there is absolutely no hope for grid plans of any sort: zig-zagging mazes of one-way streets are the way of the land. Google Maps is no use, either, when the only suggested route is blocked for construction and finding the detour takes some serious sixth sense abilities. I believe the Belgians develop their supernatural navigation skills with the help of a life-long diet of frites & samuraï sauce. There is no other logical explanation.

Despite some minor hiccups, the actual wedding day went pretty well driving-wise. The next day, after a night well-danced and little-slept, I was behind the wheel again. C’s sister had invited us to spend the evening at her place, some 100+ kilometres away. Chef the co-driver first guided us on “a shortcut”, where tarmac turned to gravel and gravel turned to a bumpy footpath. Much to my amazement, I managed to turn the car around without getting us stuck in a muddy ditch. Since we had a plenty of time left before we had agreed to meet up with C’s sister, we made a pit stop in Namur.

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We started with a snack break in the comfortably cool shade of the trees in Parc Louise-Marie. Belgian fries are usually served from a cardboard cone, with at least one sauce from a mouth-watering selection. After stuffing ourselves silly, we took a little nap on the warm grass and then hunted for pokémon like hundreds of other slaves to their cellphones. There just happened to be some kind of an arranged Pokémon Go event at the park that day. Everyone in the picture below was looking for pokémon – you can probably tell there were tons of lures there! :D

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When it came to our time to get going again, I couldn’t help but wonder how a land as flat as Belgium still manages to boast so many steep hill roads. I had managed to tuck the car away very nicely by the park, but leaving wasn’t quite as easy. I had to push start in reverse, which turned into quite the spectacle for the poké-hunting teenagers right next to us. Namur is no stranger to mazes of one-way streets, either, and finding our way out of the city centre was no peace of cake. Google Maps was, yet again, rendered useless when the route it suggested was allowed for buses and taxis only. I solved the problem on the go by doing about ten rounds in a traffic circle while Bunni frantically searched for an alternative route.

Next up, Chef & Sloth as victims of language barriers. C’s sister and her husband greeted us outside at their yard. After some awkward miming and a combination of bad French and bad English, we realized there had been a major misunderstanding and we were not, in fact, going to hang out and have dinner together. The couple already had other plans for the evening, but we could have spent the night in their guest bedroom. Tired and hungry, we opted not to raid their fridge. Instead, we got back in the car to return to C & B’s place in Liège. I filled up the gas tank for the second time ever in my life, and still ended up having to help a German pensioner with the pump. As if aware of the theme of the evening, he also spoke very little English. Chef and I, both of us hangry and desperate, stopped at a Greek restaurant only because it was right next to the road and there was easy parking nearby. Fortunately, the food was delicious – we really needed it at that point.

highwayPhoto: Chef

The sunset views on the road surely would have been a treat, if only my nerves had let me look at something other than the road ahead. When we finally made it back to Liège, it was already dark, but the nightmare still wasn’t over. Free parking spots were nowhere in sight. I kept circling the block like a hawk until I noticed an empty spot by the road.

I carefully parked the car, but as soon as I was stepping out, a man next door appeared on his balcony and started raging in French. Now, I didn’t understand a word of the yelling, but being a smart individual I could deduce from the context and the furious swinging of his arms that it wasn’t okay to park there. Unfortunately, I had left little space between the next car and ours, and I had to push start in reverse again. (Seriously, how does Belgium have this many steep hills?) As I simultaneously tried to avoid the bumper ahead and the obstacle behind, the car just kept stalling. During the frantic steering, my hand slipped to the horn repeatedly. I’m sure the neighbours all enjoyed my honking and cussing echoing in the quiet summer night. Sorry, C. Sorry, C’s neighbours. Sorry, Chef.

IMG_2333Liège-Guillemins

IMG_2334This blog needs more ceiling porn!

The car finally found its place next to a nearby pizza place, and I finally got to sleep off the living nightmare. Oh the relief the next day, when we got to travel by train again! Belgium has such a convenient and inexpensive train network that the average tourist is better off avoiding driving completely. Train travel is especially cheap with the Rail Pass, which includes 10 one-way trips between any two Belgian cities (only 7,60€/journey + possible Diabolo fee on the way to the airport). Rail Pass can be bought at a regular ticket machine, and the same pass can be used by several people at a time. It’s easy to use, as well. Before getting on the train, one empty line is filled out for each traveller: just add the date, departure station and destination, and you’re good to go! Under 26-year-olds can get the pass at an even cheaper price (50€/10 trips), but for me, that train has already left the station. Hee hee.

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