Such as a piece of Ron Weasley’s quidditch jersey, or a fox hunting for rabbits with a shotgun.
This is part 1 of a series of posts about two adventurous girls’ budget trip through London, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Paris, with accommodation entirely, and transport partially funded by human kindness, back in June 2015.
How it All Began
It was a spring afternoon when a friend of mine, Maggie messaged me. We had met back in the States and hadn’t seen each other for two years. She was going to visit her best friend who was studying abroad in Paris, so she figured that if she makes the trip across the Atlantic, she might as well explore a bit of Europe. Having a couple of other friends in London she had known from summer camps, her first destination was the English capital, so it was natural for us two to meet up as well. She also had plans of visiting Amsterdam and eventually wanted to make her way back to Paris – everything else was subject to spontaneity. I was similarly eager to travel on a budget, trying couchsurfing and hitchhiking for the first time, and I thought there wasn’t a better time and person to do this than with the most positive girl on the planet. We were initially planning to hitchhike to Amsterdam from London with a layover in Bruges, but we later changed our plans in favour of taking a bus to Brussels and exploring a couple of different cities in the area, then beginning our hitchhiking journey from there.
Sleepover at a Costume Designer’s Heaven
I purchased my new best friend, Fred, a red backpack who accompanied me on the adventures I didn’t yet know how exciting were going to be. I sent my bigger suitcase home to Hungary for the summer, and left my student house in Bournemouth. A friend of my mum’s was kind enough to offer me to stay with her for the night in the room she rents in London. She is a costume maker working on huge films shooting in London, such as the latest James Bond and Star Wars films. We strolled along the Thames and ended the day with a pub dinner near Oxford Street.
To my greatest amazement, the house she lives in became the first wonder of my trip. The owner is a successful costume cutter who has worked on movies like the Harry Potter, Thor, and James Bond series, and so on, so his house is a museum of relics from all these different films, with posters decorating the hallways and props peeping at you from every corner of the house. I was gaping at everything like a thirteen-year-old seeing her favourite blonde-haired pop idol in person.
As if these quirky objects and stylish interior weren’t enough (I was absolutely in love with that lilac bathroom), among the costume-related books and folders stacked on the shelves, I spied with my little eyes a massive lever-arch with a simple ‘HP’ scribbled on the spine. Nosy as I am, I reached for what turned out to be not some sort of manual for a Hewlett Packard printer, but a costume bible for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. A costume bible in the film world is a massive folder with pages and pages of budget breakdowns, costume continuity sheets, photographs, and other invaluable info to help costumiers keep track of the characters’ outfits and their changes. In this case, it included Emma Watson’s measurement sheet, a costume design for Luna Lovegood, a handwritten note from costume designer Jany Temime, a fabric swatch of a crimson red quidditch top with golden letters spelling ‘EASLE’ on it, and behind the scenes photos of a bleary-eyed, budding Daniel Radcliffe.
I’m not even that big of a fan, but this was neat. Like, the hair-raising kind of neat.
Drooling Over Gorgeous Food, Bubble-watching, Reunion, and a Purple Cow
After my kind host and I parted ways the next day, my day quickly rolled on. Buttered cinnamon-raisin bagel for breakfast with lemon-ginger tea in a Mr. Grumpy mug and bit of cat-petting preceded my journey to Borough Market, where I spent a good chunk of the day just wandering around all the mouth-watering, wallet-shrinking food, picking up some tasty vanilla fudge to give to our couchsurfing host later. Pro budget travel tip: do take advantage of those free samples. If you keep nibbling, those bits of paella and artisan baguettes can easily substitute an entire meal.
Maggie and I decided to meet up at the Tate Modern, so while she was en route, I made myself comfortable on the grass in front of the building, overlooking St. Paul’s Cathedral, just watching how gleefully kids chased the giant bubbles a man had conjured up, using nothing but his magic looped rope (and a bucket of soapy water). I may or may not have dozed off for a bit.
Giant bubbles = pure joy
A very happy Niki and Fred, the Red Backpack
All of a sudden, that bright smile I knew so well lit up in the distance, and within seconds, I found myself on the ground, as Maggie knocked me over whilst jumping into my arms.
We dropped Fred at the cloakroom of the Tate so that I could move more freely, and checked out the free permanent exhibition whilst filling each other in on the most exciting dating stories and adventures that happened since we had last seen each other at her high school graduation party, two years back.
We rounded up the afternoon with a stroll along the South Bank, a drink under an upside-down purple cow at the site of the annual Udderbelly festival, and a margherita pizza which was strangely, but very appropriately named after my travel buddy, Marguerite.
Mags and Niki ready for the adventure ahead
Maggie had been staying at her friend’s house in Croydon, and as we picked up her stuff, the family very generously offered us to use their bathroom too. A little wary of when we’d next be able to shower, we cleaned and mentally prepared ourselves for the journey ahead.
We took a train back to London, racing with the setting sun, and by the time night fell, we were fleeing the city on a cheap, shaky night bus to Brussels.
The journey took much longer than expected. Before entering the Channel Tunnel, security checked our passports one more time after we had already been been chucked out of the bus to line up, and try to force a smile on our drowsy faces to make them show some sort of resemblance to the much more adequate images in our passports. After what seemed like hours of waiting, crossing the tunnel in some box-like structure the bus got locked in was a nightmarish experience as blinding fluorescent lights shook me awake multiple times. I did manage to get a bit of sleep in the wee hours of the morning, but I later realised it was only due to the fact that the bus stood on the side of the road for a good couple of hours, waiting for a replacement driver, as the one scheduled one had been in an accident on his way.
A little sweaty and not perfectly well rested, but all the more happily, we finally arrived in the Belgian capital to enjoy as the rising sun warmed up the damp morning air. Dropping our big packs at a train station nearby, we collected a USE-IT map; a free publication available at train stations and hostels in many European cities, as well as online. It is the perfect aid for budget (student) travellers, full of insightful tips by young locals and quirky little illustrations.
We randomly picked a direction on the map, and began wandering, leaving it all up to serendipity. Admiring the historical buildings from the outside first, we later snooped around an antiques store and its bizarre taxidermies among the ornate mirrors and thick layers of gilt.
When in need of a wee, just pretend you’re the guests of an elegant hotel and sneak in to their bathroom (and take selfies with their encouraging mirrors)
To soothe our rumbling tummies, we stocked up on food from a supermarket and enjoyed a lavish smorgasbord picnic in the hidden and peaceful Egmont Park. I found it awesome that Belgian and Dutch supermarkets have bottles available which you can fill with tasty, freshly squeezed orange juice. After an obligatory nap in the shade, a very friendly, trilingual baby girl and her mum approached and played with us. Maggie and I agreed that rather than rushing around in the roughly eight hours we had in the city, trying (and failing) to squeeze in all the major sights, such as the Atomium, it was much more enjoyable to take our time walking where our feet took us, engaging with locals and getting a general feel of the city.
The afternoon was spent with some more meandering amongst the armed guards in front of enormous buildings dedicated to justice, blooming gardens, and shirtless blokes practicing capoeira in a park. Our last activity in the European capital was devouring a giant mitraillette, a traditional Brusselian sandwhich; a large bun filled with French fries (which, ironically, are actually Belgian), and your choice of meat, or, in my case, falafel.
Admiring the flowers at Mont des Arts, the museum quarter
Battling a mitraillette
The train ride at the end of the day marked the beginning of the real adventure, however: we were headed to Ghent, ready to sleep at a stranger’s house for the next two days, or in other words, try the equally nerve-racking and amazing phenomenon that is couchshurfing. But that’s a story for the part 2 of this series.