A Bumpy Start to Belgium
Twenty-five, I thought, as the plane prepared for landing. Twenty-five. I made it. While I’m much more about racking up experiences than passport stamps, I couldn’t help but smile at the fact that upon arrival in Belgium, I had reached my goal — albeit a very casual one — of visiting twenty-five countries before my twenty-fifth birthday. I looked out the window and smiled contentedly.
Belgium is one of those countries that I found myself in more or less by accident. In fact, I’d never felt so much as an inkling to go there until I became obsessed with attending the Tomorrowland festival. Yet once tickets were secured, I didn’t want to just jet in and out for four nights on the campground — I wanted to see a bit of Belgium. So, using Brussels as my base before and after the festival, I tacked on another five days to my plans.
Yet as my post title implies, things got off to a rough start. My hostel was a disaster, it rained non-stop for days, and massive email server issues that had me teetering on the edge of a mental breakdown. All of those would have been minor blips soon forgotten though, had it not been for customs-gate.
I arrived in Brussels to the news that the massive box of Tomorrowland supplies I had shipped myself from the US was nowhere to be found. All my carefully curated costumes, my lovingly collected camping supplies, my painstakingly arranged festival supplies — gone. Not to mention the time, money, and effort I had put into assembling and mailing it all. Considering Tomorrowland was my single most expensive travel indulgence of all times and I was now completely unprepared, to say I was frustrated was an understatement.
Originally I believed the box to be lost in the mail but after much investigation — and trudging around the city’s post offices — I learned it was being held in customs. Frankly, due to the language barrier and the fact that every single sodding person I spoke to gave me conflicting information, I’m still a little confused as to why. But from my understanding, it had to do with incorrectly filed paperwork. They asked me to produce receipts for every item in the box in order to determine how much I’d have to pay in duties — when I tried to insist that I didn’t really have the paperwork for the Camelbak I bought for Burning Man a year and a half ago, it fell on deaf ears. Having mailed things to and from Peru, Thailand, The Cayman Islands and other far flung corners of the world, I can confidently say this was the most ridiculous bureaucratic postal struggle I’ve ever encountered. (The best part? Months later, the box still hasn’t been returned to the US as promised. So on Monday, I get to start playing mail detective again! Suffice it to say, the Belgian customs is dead to me pretty much forever.)
So rather than wandering the Magritte Museum, taking a free walking tour of the city, and joining in the pre-festival merriment at my hostel, I spent a fair portion of my four days in Brussels waiting in line at mail offices, on the phone with bored postal employees, and writing pleading emails to the customs office, and then eventually accepting defeat, replacing what I could, and accepting I’d have to do without the rest. Looking back, I do regret how strongly I let the situation effect my overall emotional state — it was an ugly reminder that I don’t handle disappointment very well.
Thankfully, there were a few moments where I was able to snap out of my contagiously sour mood. For example, when my search was halted by a total shut-down of public offices for Belgian National Day, and the lovely Sofie and Yvonne of Wonderful Wanderings and Under the Yew Tree, respectively, dragged me away from my pity party planning in order to take a peek at the festivities.
And so it turned out that once again I unintentionally lucked into a colorful local celebration.
When the parade-watching crowds grew too thick, we set off to seek out two of Brussel’s most famous attractions — a waffle stand and a tiny statue of a peeing man. Yes, Manneken Pis is inexplicably beloved by Belgians and tourists alike, and even has a special outfits for various occasions. I can’t say I truly got what all the fuss was about, but I did have a good laugh at the endless pis-inspired souvenirs and the massive crowds surrounding the miniscule statue.
We finished off our afternoon of Brussels-inspired bonding with a beer at Delirium. Many of you know that I’m no beer drinker myself, but you know what they say — when in Belgium. With more than 3,000 beers on tap, there was sure to be something I could stand. On Yvonne’s advice I went for a sweet cherry version and to my own surprise, finished the entire glass. In the end, it was people like Yvonne and Sofie and a few sweet strangers who saved my time in Brussels. Sofie in particular spent endless hours on the phone trying to negotiate with the post office for me in Dutch, a kindness that I was truly touched by.
Coming full circle at the end of my trip, I returned once again to Brussels, this time with fave travel buddy Heather in tow. We checked into the colorful Hotel Pantone, and I knew this time would be different. Considering we were recovering from an intense bout of festival-ing (stay tuned for coverage!) we chose to spend quite a large percentage of our time lounging around in our multi-hued home.
The designer in me was obsessed with the Pantone theme, but my love went beyond surface level. The hotel’s location was perfect and while rooms are simple, they are a great value compared to other hotels in the area.
In giving Heather a mini-tour of my Brussels highlights (chocolate, waffles, fries, macaroons, and cherry-flavored beer, basically) I suddenly saw the city through the eyes of a traveler instead of a fired-up adversary of the customs office — and I much preferred this view.
Sadly, we didn’t have time to check off all the Brussels bucket list items I’d missed as our one full day there fell on a Monday when museums are closed. But that’s okay, because I already know that someday, Brussels deserves a second chance.
Next time, I’m not mailing so much as a postcard.
How do you deal with frustration and disappointment when you travel?
Many thanks to Pantone Hotel for hosting us and to Blacklane Limousines for providing transportation. As always, you receive my honest thoughts and opinions regardless of who is footing the bill.
Wow, that hostel looks absolutely beautiful! I was in Brussels once for about 24 hours and all I did was eat fries, waffles and drink beer- it was pretty great although I wasn’t crazy about the city. Sorry about your mailing fiasco, that would be beyond frustrating!
It was a nightmare. I’m still sad when I think about my costumes! Hope I get it back eventually. And yeah, I don’t really hear rave reviews for Brussels though it can be a great base.
I don’t know where you stayed initially in Brussels, but I don’t blame you for letting that drag you down since the one (and only!) time I visited, the place my friend and I stayed was absolutely awful which only compounded the underwhelming experiences we had elsewhere in the city. It was the ONLY time in my travels that I have encountered bed bugs (eeek!) and resulted in us checking out at, like, 4 in the morning and hunkering down at the train station instead. Needless to say, I was not charmed by Brussels (and I didn’t even have to deal with customs or the post office!) and I really never ever want to go back. I did enjoy seeing your photos, though! Those will definitely be enough for me! 🙂
That sounds AWFUL! The problem with my original hostel was the temperature. The air conditioning was broken and there were no fans or openable windows. So it was like an oven, and everyone in the dorms got up multiple times a night to take cold showers to keep from baking. Every morning there was an endless line of people complaining at reception. I felt like I didn’t sleep for four days!
That hostel looks amazing – I definitely want to stay there if I make my way to Belgium! Don’t worry, I would have dealt with the mail fiasco poorly as well…I also hate that reminder of how I deal with disappointment. The only thing we can do is try to stay positive next time 🙂
Actually, Pantone is a hotel and not a hostel 🙂 It is a very reasonably priced hotel, though! And thanks for the reassurance — sometimes you just have to accept a bad mood and let it happen.
I love the design of that hotel! Chocolate, macaroons, and fruity beer happen to be a few of my favourite things, so I feel as if I would enjoy Brussels!
Then Brussels will be your mecca 🙂 Look out for the review I have coming up of the chocolate tour I did… definitely the highlight of the city for me!
I don’t blame you for being so frustrated! It probably would have been better if the package had just been completely lost in the mail. Knowing that it was THERE, but being kept from you, made it much worse, I’m sure!
I’m glad you were able to enjoy Brussels in the end. I have only been to Bruges in Belgium, but I LOVED it!
Yes! That was SO furstrating. I felt like, that’s my box, those are my belongings, I spent a *$%#ton to send them here… GIVE IT TO ME! But yes, Bruges was gorgeous… post to come!
So sorry to hear about your postal fiasco! I would have been the same way. You hate to see all your careful planning and curating go to waste.
And the confusing, inconsistent information and the hassle and the stress… it was just a bad combo! Poor Brussels didn’t have a chance.
looks like you still managed to have a good time despite the bumpy start! Living in Spain, I know all to well how bureaucratic processes can turn you into a mess…
I don’t have much experience in Europe and I think naively I actually thought that it would be smoother there, being part of the “Western” world, than it has been in places like Thailand. Jokes on me — the opposite was true! Interesting lesson to learn 🙂
I noticed in your photos that have crowds, not one person was smiling. In fact, even at the parade, they all look pretty miserable. Perhaps locals are equally frustrated by the post.
Ha! Or perhaps misery loves company, and I was drawn to the pouty ones…
When I found out I had some how lost my beloved kindle with about 25 brand spankin’ new books a couple hours into RTW-for-9-months trip I wanted to cry. And then immediately felt like an idiot for being so upset, which just made me want to cry more. I read about 3-4 books a week so my kindle is always with me. Even worse, I have no idea where it went. I am normally super careful with my things. Ugh. So I feel ya on the disappointment part but at least in your case it wasn’t your own fault… Anywho started carrying around paper books and trading them with people on the road (hostels/family etc) which turned out to be lots of fun.
I’ve always appreciated your candor, so thanks again!
That would be so upsetting, again because it’s something you planned so carefully for! And I can totally relate to being even MORE upset by your upset reactions. I am not easy on myself, and am often frustrated by completely natural emotions of sadness/anger/etc. I need to learn to let go of that layer 🙂
Oh man welcome to the My Mail Was Taken Hostage club! When I lived in Spain customs went crazy and held everyone’s packages! My laptop broke so my mom mailed me an old one from home and they held it for weeks until my university contacted them saying I needed it for studying. I also had to give them copies of my passport, visa, and a signed sheet saying the laptop was used so they wouldn’t charge me the duty.
After complaining to a friend studying abroad in South Africa I was told I should consider myself lucky. Apparent South Africa’s mail system is less than reliable 😉
Holy crap, that sounds like a nightmare! Yeah, one of my friends in the Cayman Islands told me that one time she had to pay duty when a friend send her a bunch of burned mix CDs… ha! I guess international post isn’t easy anywhere.
I would have be so frustrated if I were you. Sometimes I don’t understand why customs is so complicated. I had a similar experience in Thailand when my mom mailed me a care package – it had things like vitamins, deodorant, face wash, and other items that were tough to get in Southeast Asia. I was aware that I would have to pay a hefty tax but I had no idea that customs would refuse to release the package to me because some of the items were not allowed in the country. I still don’t understand exactly what happened. And in the end I never got my package and they even wanted $250 to destroy it (which I didn’t pay). The whole thing was infuriating and so expensive. I’m glad you were at least able to spend a couple stress free days in Belgium. It’s always a bummer to have a frustrating travel experience color you view of a destination.
Haha at them wanting you to pay to destroy a box of your own stuff. I wonder what was in it that wasn’t allowed in Thailand?! You can walk into a pharmacy here and get Xanax without a prescription, so it’s mildly entertaining if they were offended by some vitamins.
Ugh I’m sorry about your mailing woes. I look forward to reading about your festival adventures regardless, as the photos you have posted so far of you are so stunning!
As far as frustrations on the road, they are an inevitable part of the greater adventure, in my opinion. In a short space of time, I was on an overcrowded ferry during a storm I was sure was about to capsize, was then almost scammed when I got to shore, then checked into a hostel that served up a neat dose of bed bugs. Not a pleasant week – I assure you I was not having a great time. I have a mantra when these things happen – “this too, shall pass.” No matter what awful situation you are in, it won’t last forever. I think it’s okay to allow yourself to be upset, and you don’t have to be forever chirpy and happy. When the darkness passes, you will come right back to your sunshine-y self!
That is a good mantra to remind yourself of! Another one I read lately from Kristin at Be My Travel Muse was “I am the captain of this ship.” I am trying to use it these days to remind myself I have influence over my moods and emotions.
If I didn’t know this happened in Belgium, I would have totally thought that it was in France! I didn’t know that Belgium’s administration was as rigid as ours… In a weird way it makes me feel better but in another I’m sorry that you had to experience it. As a European, I guess we are kind of expecting that kind of frustrations (even though we don’t like it, it’s not a surprise anymore + we don’t really have a choice!) but tourists are coming to have a good time and they leave with a bitter taste. I’m happy that you could enjoy some of your time there anyway and see that there is so much more to it if you are willing to look the other way!
It definitely was not pleasant! And funny enough on my very last morning before going to the airport I had to mail something FROM Belgium, and that was a nightmare too! I got on the plane fuming, but luckily time has given me great perspective 🙂
I can’t believe you still don’t have that box! But I’m happy you still found a way to enjoy the trip and hopefully the festival (staying tuned). I’m still trying to figure out how to handle disappointment on the road as my mood (good or bad) always feels amplified when traveling. Hopefully my first time in Bangkok in a couple weeks won’t leave me hanging.
I know… I have been putting off trying to hunt it down again because I am so traumatized from the last time! And the language barrier definitely doesn’t make it easy. Argh. And don’t worry — Bangkok is fantastic 🙂
I don’t think I knew you were so anti-beer! I’m such a beer lover, Belgium is definitely on my list of “someday” European destinations. I can foresee myself gaining at least 10 pounds though…self-control is not my strong suit, ha!
Yeah I rolled right out of Belgium (just wait until my chocolate tour post…) and right into a bikini-clad Greek island hopping tour! Not my best planning, bloat-wise.
Wow, besides long delays for packages I’ve never had such a problem with the postal service in Europe! Here’s hoping your box finds it’s way home.
I’ve dealt with my fair share of frustrations & disappointments on the road: The best thing I try to remember is to remain flexible. Even the best laid plans can (& often will) go awry, but there is always an option to adapt and continue on!
Excited to hear more about Tomorrowland; it has been on my curiosity list for awhile now!
I can’t wait to start posting about it! And here’s hoping my box’s delayed journey back to the US is just a speed issue, and not another bureaucratic nightmare…
Government bureaucrats … gotta love their humorless, obstructionist ways (not). Good to see you overcame it though!
Well, I will only by truly over it when that box is back at my mom’s house in the US! Here’s hoping!
wow what a bummer on the package/customs. I had no idea countries in Europe were so strict. I’m glad you found a way to get past it, I would have stayed sour for a while; I also don’t handle disappointment well.
I can’t get packages in India because of the customs laws (no powder, liquid or food.. and since my mom would send toiletries and food it would all be confiscated NOT sent back). Also, they take 50% of the value paid! Even on “old clothes” they want to know the depreciated value.. it’s insane. When I ordered from ASOS they kept the clothes ages then I had to pay 60% of the value it cost .. with shipping charges.. I paid a crazy amount, way more than the clothes cost and realized I could never shop in India again 🙁
For shame! So frustrating. Yeah, I mean I really weighed up the cost of shipping the box vs. paying extra baggage charges and decided to pay more to ship it so I wouldn’t have to haul it around the UK and Malta. Whoops — clearly made the wrong choice there!
Let me tell you..without even knowing where you went, reading your troubels would have let me guessed instantly your destination was Belgium. Man, are they idiots here, I have not yet encountered an office that just WORKS and people working in them that are actually helpful..Belgium mostly sucks, even though some people are nice 😉
Aw, I definitely met some lovely and wonderful people in Belgium! However, clearly some things such as the opening hours of postal and customs offices did rub me the wrong way 🙂
Ugh, it’s unbelievable how beaucratic customs can be – I’ve had my share of them too. It seems you found a great alternative though – those Tomorrowland outfits were fierce, girl!
Thankfully my girl Heather was happy to share 🙂
Yep, you just have to let the bad moods when things go wrong happen. I am exactly the same, I don’t handle disappointment well either but it is something I am working on
Yeah, I think this will be a good incident to look back on and remind myself of in the future when I’m trying to avoid the same kind of meltdown 🙂 So at least I will learn from it!
So sorry to hear about the post office fiasco! 🙁 I would be completely frustrated and disappointed as well. I’m looking forward to the Tomorrowland post(s) and let’s just focus on that Hotel for a minute…. it is absolutely beautiful, I’m loving all the pops of color!!!!
Yes! It was the cutest. And when we confirmed the reservation they asked if we had a preference for what color room we wanted. Love it! 🙂
Ugh…that really sucks! Hopefully you get the box back eventually.
I’ve been to Belgium a few times and really love the place but have only ever used Brussels as a place to fly into and then take a train out of straight away. I’ve spent time in Ghent, Antwerp, Bruges and Leuven and had a really fun festival experience at Rock Werchter a few years back. I’d recommend Antwerp and Leuven for your next trip there!
I do wish I had had time to take in Antwerp as well! I will definitely be back to Belgium to explore more someday.
You had to pay stamp duty on the costume? SH!T! At least you were in a fine place to enjoy some beers to get over the frustration, but as the Thai say..Mai pen Rai.. when things go wrong, I just think that it could be worse off and that I could always be back in an office grinding away.
That is a VERY good bit of perspective to have 🙂 I will try to remind myself of that next time!
I’m glad Yvonne and I could at least give you a couple of fun hours before Tomorrowland. I really do hope you’re bad still gets sent back to you, and like I said: I’m happy to ring them up again to ask what’s taking them so long!
Also, despite of the weather and the stressful situation, you managed once again to produce some beautiful photos:-)
Thank you! The rainy weather probably contributed to my lingering annoyance over customs… I find it’s a lot harder to be cranky when the sun is shining!
How frustrating! Hopefully, you get your items back. On a side note the Pantone hotel looks great!
I’m going to put my big girl panties on tomorrow and restart the hunt for the box! Wish me luck!
Some days your the dog and some days your the hydrant! Don’t be too hard on yourself about how you handled the customs frustration. No one is perfect and life is about learning and growing. You are doing both so well! We can’t walk around every corner expecting disappointment so that we are less disappointed when it comes haha. I remind myself: What I can accept, I can overcome. The universe has a way of evening out and you can think back on your box the next time something amazing happens to you unexpectedly. Which it will 🙂
So much wisdom in one comment! I think you are right about the universe-balancing and do try to remind myself of that when I’m annoyed. The other day I dropped 1000 baht on the ground somewhere and lost it… and all I had to do to get over it was remind myself that at Mardi Gras, I found over $100 dollars on the ground!
I’m so sorry the first few days of your Brussels experience were so terrible! I also didn’t like beer until I went to Brussels, actually, and to this day can’t stand the American stuff, and not for lack of trying. But I am glad you got to try all the great food and see the sights eventually. Just walking around there is enough for me, to be honest! I felt more comfortable and fun loving in Belgium than I have almost anywhere else in my life.
Lovely to hear from someone who loves Belgium! It’s a wonderful feeling when a place can make you feel that way 🙂
Not sure if this will make you feel better or worse, but Benelux has the worst mail system of any I’ve ever encountered—in the words of Taylor Swift—like, ever. Scott and I mailed all our belongings from the Netherlands to Denmark in 2005 and received them…never. We even insured our boxes and everything, and they never tracked them down! Eventually we each got 500 euro—as in months later—which did little to alleviate the annoyance I felt for losing all the clothing I took abroad with me, not to mention the frustration dealing with calling the Dutch postal service weekly for the better part of a year!
All that to say, I FEEL YA, SISTA.
UGH tell me about it! I will be gutted if this box never shows back up but I am starting to lose hope. The worst part is it is impossible to navigate the phone menu for the postal service without being a Dutch or French speaker, so I have to keep begging people to help me with this mess. Pretty over the whole thing.
Nice work on the 25 by 25!! Congratulations!! I have a very similar arbitrary goal – 30 countries before I’m 30. (In case you’re wondering, I’ve got 10 to go and 4 years to do it…) I know it’s a bit silly, but goals like this are fun!
Your postal situation sounds awful. I do love how you refer to yourself as an adversary of the postal service though, that made me laugh. I have a story you might find interesting…
A few years ago I was doing research at work on postal systems around the world. Odd topic, right? It was to prep diplomats who were attending the Universal Postal Union congress, and we had to do a brief for each country – so naturally I picked the most unusual countries off the list first. My favourite was what I found out about the postal service of Kyrgyzstan. It’s definitely NOT what you would call reliable. Sometimes parcels arrive, sometimes they don’t, but if they do arrive, more often than not, it won’t be exactly what you packed. It seems postal or customs workers open the parcels to check the contents, and if they see something they like, they tend to help themselves. But it’s not flat-out theft – they’ll almost always replace whatever they take with something else. So it’s kind of like a trade, it’s just that you don’t get any say in the matter!
I found it hilarious, and if I ever get to Kyrgyzstan, I’ll be pretty tempted to try mailing myself something just to see what happens! Would be amazingly frustrating if you had to send something important though.
I’m glad that it was just a bumpy start to Belgium and that things picked up. I’m still drooling over your chocolate post tbh… haha. 🙂
Ha! That is an AMAZING story. Love the trading aspect. I would mail myself something too! Thanks for sharing, made my smile 🙂 And good luck hitting that 30 by 30… It’s a fun one to pursue!
I know, how bizarre is it?? I honestly have no idea what sorts of things they put in. I wonder what would happen if customs at your own end had to open it and you had no idea what was in it? At the moment I live in Fiji, and any time you get a parcel from overseas you have to open it in front of the customs official.
“And this, what is this?”
“Ummm… I think this is my new Kyrgyzian… um… maybe it’s a flute? What do you think?”
Yes, I can see that going down very well…
Girl that sucks, I had the same problem happen to me when I lived in Spain. It had to do with the value of what I declared. Basically I had to say that no matter what was in the box, it was under $20. Luckily in NZ it’s a $400 limit. Such a nightmare but looks like you had an awesome time in Belgium. I hope you get your box back xx
Ugh, sounds like this is a common problem in Europe! Yikes! My fight to get the box on continues, three months later…
Oh I don’t handle disappointment well either, Alex.
My reaction is always embarrassing at the time and after when I think about how I reacted.
I get quiet, closed off and eventually cry. Then, eventually, I shake it off and try to look on the bright side and carry on.
I remember going to my first hot springs in Banff, Alberta and it was not at all what I expected. So many people and it was just like a heated pool honestly and the mountain view was blocked. I was not impressed at all and my poor husband had to deal with my poor mood for the rest of the evening but I couldn’t shake off the disappointment.
Sorry you had to go through all the hassle with customs and the postal service but I’m glad Brussels improved by the end and I hope you did get your stuff back. I’ll remember not to ship anything to Belgium.
I’m also not a fan of beer the only one I enjoy is the Kilkenny or a blue moon if I add peach schnapps to it but that cherry beer sounds delicious! I’ll be sure to try it when I head to Brussels next year.
I can so relate, Sandy. That’s basically exactly what I do! I totally understand — and am still trying to find some coping mechanisms today!