Fresh off the plane and you are excitedly walking down the terminal, so ready to take those first steps on foreign ground when it hits you, “wow, I actually don’t have a clue what to do next.” If this hasn’t happened to you at some point, that’s impressive; or you were just smart enough to have a post-flight plan from the beginning. We did not. Our only plan was to hop on the longest plane ride of our lives, get to Europe and… that was it. There was a general idea of which countries to visit, but the whole trip was more or less a make-it-up-as-you-go type of deal. This made for a spontaneous itinerary which was great but it also fell through every once in a while, hence why there was no plan of action for after getting off the plane.
Upon arriving in Brussels, Belgium, I was in a curious state of awestricken bemusement. I may have even forgotten to eat that first day. Blame for that goes to too much excitement and anticipation.
After going through obligatory security and passport-checking, we arrived at the front doors of the airport. So enthralled by the thought of being surrounded by non-American air, we ventured out a short distance before quickly realizing that we had no idea where we were or where we were trying to get to. There’s something freeing about having no itinerary and literally the entire day to figure things out and do whatever you want. Isn’t it nice how travel makes that acceptable? In “real” life, that’s typically thought of as being lazy and having no direction; but abroad, it’s called opportunity and adventure.
Back inside, I decided to test out my horrible French, recently learned courtesy of a small Rick Steves language book. It was scattered throughout with French, Italian and German words and phrases, from which, I picked the most relevant one. Dutch is also spoken in Belgium but the majority of people in Brussels speak French so when I found the information desk I threw the lady one of these: “excusez-moi, ou puis je acheter un billet?” In English, this translates to “excuse me, where can I buy a ticket?”
I was so hopeful that my first attempts at foreign communication would work out, that they would set the tone for the rest of the trip. As you probably could’ve guessed, they didn’t work out, but they did set the tone for the rest of the trip which would be filled with confusion, excitement, self-reliance, learning, exploration, adventure… The list goes on.
Maybe my French was just that bad or I had misspoke and said something totally different, but regardless, my attempts proved futile. The sweet Belgian lady at the information desk merely chuckled softly and smiled at me as if to say “aww nice try.” She then proceeded to say far too many things to comprehend in French before giving up and explaining the rest in English. With that and a thankful “merci beaucoup,” we walked down the stairs, took surprisingly long figuring out which bus tickets to buy, and went outside to wait for the 21 to Luxembourg, Belgium.
Off to a humbling yet great start!
Here are a few of the essentials to consider before you land:
- Prepare for at least the first night’s accommodations
- Know where you are staying and how relatively close it is
- Brush up on the local language and behavioral customs
- At the very least, know “hello,” “goodbye,” “excuse me,” “thank you,” and how to ask for directions
- Make sure you are appropriately dressed for your destination
- Be aware of potentially offensive gestures or mannerisms and change them accordingly
- Familiarize yourself with the local currency and exchange rate
- Have the correct currency in hand, or find the nearest ATM (probably not the one at the airport as airport currency exchange can be pricey)
- Or, if you’d like, have a non-existent plan guided by courtesy and common sense, and safely wander the streets until you find whatever it is you didn’t quite know you were looking for