Wednesday, March 2, 2011

A Bruge-d Budget in Belgium

Yesterday on the flight from Belgium to Bulgaria I got the chance to catch up on the recording of my “daily expenses” in the back of my journal.  I keep track of what I spend each day on things like food, lodging, local transport, and entertainment.  A separate page entitled “Trains/Airplanes/Buses” records the cost of intercity and international rides, and another page called “Misc. Expenses (non-recurring)” tallies things like souvenirs, postage, books, and visas.  My goal—based on the cash in my bank account—is to spend no more than $40 dollars per day, including long-distance transportation and the non-recurring expenses.

Math isn’t my strong suit, but I do know that in order to come within budget I must strive to spend less than $40 in daily expenses on any given day.  I also know that, using the law of averages, having a $40-plus day means I can look forward to some ramen noodles on the horizon.  Of course my budget does fluctuate by location, so over-budget days in Russia can be made up for in, say, Poland. By way of specific example, in Moscow—consistently ranked as one of the world’s most expensive cities—my worst budget-busting day had me spending $49.53; in Krakow—where my hostel bed cost about $8 dollars—I made it one day on $16.50, including my daily cappuccino.  Putting those two days together generates a $33 average.

When the final numbers were in, I could see that Luxembourg and Belgium positively killed me.  Simply put, the Benelux countries are not for the serious budget backpacker.  The hostel bed in Luxembourg alone cost $33, which, if memory serves, is more than I’ve ever paid for a hostel bed anywhere in the world, Sweden included.  My daily average over six full days in Luxembourg and Belgium was $52.57 per day.  This means I'll have some making up to do in Bulgaria; fortunately, after two days, it appears I'm well on my way.  Today I spent $17.95--all in--and tonight a kind woman from Germany gave me huge hunk of Bulgarian cheese that she can't take with her when she leaves tomorrow, so that will be even more savings.

In addition to the high prices, another problem confronting the budget backpacker in Belgium is the fact that the country is “famous” for so many things that one absolutely must try.  There’s Belgian waffles, Belgian fries, Belgian beer, Belgian chocolate, and the list of hedonistic Belgian pleasures goes on and on.  In Bruges (rhymes with lugeyour saliva flows at every turn; in fact, I doubt that one could walk 50 feet through the center without passing a chocolatier, a pub, a purveyor of fruit and whipped-cream topped waffles, an inviting little bistro, or some other establishment whose aim is to get you to shove one more delicious thing down your gullet.  And then there's the whole “who’s-got-the-best” consideration to contend with, as in, who makes the best fries?  The most authentic waffle?  The creamiest milk chocolate?  

Being a total amateur, I myself fell victim to the Belgian-authenticity game.  On my first day in Bruges I passed a kebab shop with a sign advertising Belgian (as opposed to French) fries.  I figured it was as good a time as any to try some, so I went in and submitted my order.  The fries were definitely salty and delicious, but I must say they looked and tasted unlike the fries you get on the side at, let’s say, Denny’s.  But still I had experienced Belgian fries and was able to cross it off  the list of Belgian must-dos.

Later I made the mistake of telling another backpacker where I had gotten my Belgian fries.  He informed me that fries made by Turkish guys in kebab shops aren’t the real Belgian fries, and therefore, I hadn’t experienced the authentic stuff.  Of course this gnawed at me endlessly.  A couple days later I made my way through winding streets filled with map-toting tourists, crazy bicyclists and horse-drawn carriages in order to find one of the two fry shacks (called frietkoten) located at the base of the town’s belfry.  The map said that these two places jockey for the title of Bruges’ best Belgian fries, so I figured I couldn't go wrong.  I chose the fry shack on the right.  It had a longer line and I thought that might mean something.  I handed over my money expecting something really spectacular and different.  Of course, the fries looked and tasted exactly the same as the ones I had consumed in the kebab shop two days earlier.  

It seems like in Bruges all I did for three days was walk around trying to resist urges.  I recall at one point lingering for a long time in front of a restaurant that featured on its outside chalkboard “authentic Flemish onion soup” smothered with some kind of unpronounceable cheese.  I bet that would be delicious, I thought, as I stood staring into the window and imagining my spoon puncturing thick, hot Flemish cheese draped over a ramekin filled with onions and broth and bread.  I even went so far as to calculate the 6.50 € into my own currency.  That's about eight dollars, plus tip, I figured.  The sad thing is, I wasn’t even hungry and I still had to rip myself from the scene.   Just walk away, just walk away, I told myself repeatedly.  I was able to resist in that instance, but there were other times when the compulsion to "do Belgium" got the best of me.  To be sure, in Bruges it's easy to lose control over more things than just your wallet.   

Actually, I would have come just under budget my third day in Bruges were it not for the “Chocolate Obama.”  I had read in a tourist brochure that the Choco-Story Chocolate Museum had a life-sized statue of President Obama made from Belgian chocolate on display.  I don’t know what is with me and edible, Obama-related creations, but I paid the 6 € to go have a look.  I felt I got ripped off because, to me, the sculpture barely resembled Barack Obama.  The Australian couple passing next to me said so too.  And though I couldn't quite put my finger on it, I want to say the statue looked more like a young Jimmy Carter.

Thankfully the museum wasn’t a total waste of Euros.  I learned a lot about the origins of chocolate consumption, and some chocolate-related facts that surprised me.  For instance, did you know that eating chocolate can prevent cavities?  I also now have it on authority—after all, this was the museum of chocolate—that if you consume chocolate in moderation, "you will not get fat."  Unfortunately, the informational display didn’t specify whether scarfing down a checkbook-size Belgian chocolate bar every day for three days straight constitutes “moderation.”  But my pants still fit the same, so maybe?