A Final Hurrah in Belgium as the Semester Abroad Ends

Emma Lipkind reconnected with herself on her solo-trip in Bruges. (Courtesy of Instagram)

Emma Lipkind reconnected with herself on her solo-trip in Bruges. (Courtesy of Instagram)

Since I was pretty young, I always imagined how amazing staying alone at a hotel would be. The peace and quiet, the bed all to myself and most importantly the ability to sing in the shower without people hearing — it sounded like a dream.

So when I booked the Goezeput Hotel for a single night in Bruges, Belgium, I was absolutely thrilled to fulfill the fantasies of 12-year-old Emma. A solo trip had also been long overdue, and as this was probably my last chance for a weekend getaway before I head back home, there couldn’t have been a better time. Except, maybe if it weren’t the holiday season so I could’ve paid a bit less …  but onwards and upwards.

Now, you might be wondering: Why Bruges? What’s in Bruges? Both great questions. In short, I was looking for Christmas markets, peace and quiet and beautiful scenery. Frankly, I’m over museums, expensive activities, monuments and history. There’s enough of that in Paris. So, after asking around and doing some research, Bruges seemed to fit the description, and off I went.

The journey was relatively easy compared to some of the other train experiences I’ve had (remember Milan?), and soon after dropping my things off at the hotel, I was ready to take on the town. I plopped myself at the first charming café I found for some matcha, sipping it outside to really get into the winter spirit.

It took me a second to readjust to being alone. Feeling aware of people perceiving me as a solo traveler, I felt watched and vulnerable. In the past, and especially in New York, I became accustomed to being alone except for when I wanted company, but in Paris it’s the other way around.

I finished my matcha and embarked on the next task: head to the Christmas market. What’s beautiful about traveling alone is that I don’t have to plan 10 steps ahead or stick to a plan — if I wanted to, I could spend 45 minutes wandering along the canal all the way to the top of the city. And that’s exactly what I did.

Headphones blaring, sun peeking through tree branches, swans floating in the canal, I found myself practically giggling from joy. It was so fun that I started questioning if I’m really the extrovert I thought I once was, because not talking to anyone and just observing my surroundings was reviving me.

The feeling of myself that I seemed to lose upon arriving in Paris suddenly reappeared in Belgium. As magical as my two days were, I doubt it had anything to do with the physical place, but rather the fact that I reconnected with the version of myself I’ve been missing.

After spending the majority of night one in my hotel room, I embarked on a journey to see Brussels early the next morning. But first, I stopped for a bagel. What can I say? I’m homesick.

It was in the main square of Brussels that I felt that magical feeling I expected from the start. I stumbled upon it, only to find a giant Christmas tree surrounded by white and gold buildings and huge crowds. I got as close to the tree as I could, and just when the gratitude was washing over me, a light show complete with music and projections took over the square. Suddenly, gratitude and disbelief were punching me in the face. Even though I was disappointed this didn’t happen earlier, it’s probably better this way.

I left the Christmas epicenter with a few hours left in Brussels and the biggest smile I’ve had in a while. When I finally got back to my host mom’s apartment, I felt the relief of being at home. Things suddenly fell into place.

With all of that being said, this is also my last article for this column. To end things off, I considered recapping the semester, looking ahead to graduation or even talking about all the things I wish I did differently. Instead, I think my trip to Belgium says everything. I finally had that out-of-body moment, the awakening, when it hit me how lucky I am to be in this moment and in this experience.

As my friends recently described me, I’m a realist. That was probably very clear in my articles — I am not going to sugarcoat the truth nor pretend like my lived experience isn’t reality. At the same time, I can recognize the impact studying abroad has had on me, for better or for worse. And because of my realist perspective, it’s clear that what people said in the beginning was true: I changed, I learned innumerable things about myself and I’m going to miss Paris like crazy. Sure, would it have been nice if it were a bit less stressful and overwhelming? Of course. But I know that this is how it was supposed to be, and that doesn’t take away from all the amazing things I’ve done, wonderful people I’ve met and incredible places I’ve seen.

So, like I said earlier, onwards and upwards. Thank you for coming along with me on this insane journey. I hope I offered something beneficial to you, whether that be a laugh, an unspoken understanding or a sign to study abroad (or maybe to stay home). Now I just have to get through finals and go home, where I’m sure I’ll look back on this much more fondly.

As they say in Paris, à bientôt.