My Hong Kongese Dream

From Denmark to Estonia

Month: October 2015

Inexplicable access to Brussels

Brussels is the heart of various European Union institutions

Brussels is the heart of various European Union institutions

Saving money requires luck and planning. My so-called “travel on a budget” is based on my school programme and personal preference–only the quantity of food matters.

So let alone the 24-hour stay in Amsterdam which, in theory, costed me around €10 including everything except the €24.5 fancy skull backpack from Van Gogh Museum. In practice, you can hardly buy a fine backpack with €24.5 in Hong Kong.

As I began to walk towards the UK-based MegaBus station in Amsterdam at night, I knew it would be a tough task for me to save my pocket–socialising with classmates, getting to rural areas for interviews, and drinking dozens cans of beer to make myself drunk. But it was simply an imagination way beyond the truth.

During the 5-day European Union(EU) reporting trip, we were assigned to visit the EU Parliament and the Commission. While there is no sponsorship for the school to pay for our study trip, we were assigned to live in two places–Citadines Sainte-Catherine Hotel for the first night and Hello Hostel for the remaining three nights. But I only stayed in the hotel for a few hours as I arrived at 3 am and we needed to check out at around 8 am, so there’s no point for me to comment on the service and details of the hotel. I particularly like the room with private kitchen as well as free waffles for the breakfast, though.

Free food & group dining 

As a root -class exchange student from Hong Kong, basically I have everything on a budget including transportation, food and accommodation. But in Europe, you can be a dumpster-diver outside grocery stores and get food for free and get on a train without paying for tickets (which I never recommend).

Italian-French restaurant in Brussels

Italian-French restaurant in Brussels

It’s an art to find a balance between controlling your spending without missing too much local dishes. Leaving out Michelin Star restaurants and extravagant items, the most costly dinner was the first Belgian night which costed me €16.5 euro. It was a nice Italian restaurant with waiter and waitress speaking French and Italian, and I was even misunderstood as speaking Chinese while I was asking for a cup of tap water (you don’t have to pay for tap water but you need to pay for a bottle of water in this kind of restaurant). The stakes were high and almost all politics classmates showed up in the dinner. I had a big pizza with eggs and sausages for €10, but the combination of wine and water fees were as high as €6.5. Bare in mind that I had around €20 in my pocket for the entire journey including Luxembourg and Hamburg in Germany.

€10 pizza with spicy sausage and fried egg

€10 pizza with spicy sausage and fried egg

Still, we have to pay for a moment of happiness. So I accepted and spent €2 euro for two meals and €1 for bread. The upcoming days went worse for reporting, but did too well capitalising my advantage to the study trip–enjoying free lunch in both Commission and Parliament. There was a €6 lunch coupon for each of us to order food in the Commission’s canteen. For health’s sake, I ordered a yummy steak with potato but also with all kinds of fruits. The lunch in the Parliament is entirely different from the Commission’s as we were offered to free sandwiches after rounds of talks and sharing by different Members of the European Parliament(MEP).

Free vegetarian food outside the EU Parliament

Free vegetarian food outside the EU Parliament

The luckiest encounter was a free lunch campaign outside the Parliament, which aims at boosting the awareness  of people not to waste food. It was a nice dish with vegetarian food which is free from Genetically Modified Organism(GMO) food. And additionally I got a kiss from a Belgian designer–yes it was free as well, if you count it in as my travel on a budget.

Hostel & couch-surfing 

Common area in Hello Hostel, Brussels.

Common area in Hello Hostel, Brussels.

Without an option, our class was assigned to stay in Hello Hostel for three nights, given that there is free breakfast and affordable drinks and pizzas at the bar. Chances are, when you live with dozens and dozens of travellers sharing same bathrooms and toilets, timing is crucial. Instead of taking showers at night, I woke up at around five every morning to get a sense of space and freedom. There were free shampoo left from the previous visitors and I dared not to waste it.  In addition to the free breakfast, there is a reasonable yet not budget-friendly breakfast rules–you can’t take as many bread as you want to eat since there is a fixed portion for all visitors. So I decided to take a huge portion of bread and finished it as quick as I can. Thanks mom and dad for giving me such a big appetite.

Free breakfast with limited quota–starting from 6:30am

Free breakfast with limited quota–starting from 6:30am

As the reporting ended and my Danish partner drove back to Denmark, I was forced to sleep at the central train station in Brussels, I thought. So I texted a Brussels-based Hong Kong journalist about my plan and she was more than worried about my safety. “I won’t feel comfortable if I know that my brother is sleeping at the station overnight,” she wrote. With a big surprise she asked her husband to pick me up at a train station which is near where they live. Her husband is also a French journalist from Hong Kong. He greeted me in Cantonese and I felt like home. They treated me like their son and cooked me some spicy Asian dishes. It was the warmest gift as I managed to find a shelter to stay for a night. In this sense, there is no need to click and send requests in the couch-surfing website since I can rely on the social network that is built by myself.

Noticeable places & events 

Chamber of European Union's Parliament

Main chamber of the European Union’s Parliament

During the study trip, we spent most of our time to arrange interviews and reading documents, sightseeing became a luxury but I still managed to go to Cinquantenaire for 25th anniversary of German reunification and the Royal Palace after getting back from Luxembourg (Note: I finished Brussels study trip on Friday and travelled Luxembourg for a day and got back to Brussels on the same night).

EU Parliament's president Martin Schulz gives a speech for 25th German reunification before Unity of Light

EU Parliament’s president Martin Schulz gives a speech for 25th German reunification before Unity of Light

Cinquantenaire square is a place having a high similarity with Brandenburg gate in Berlin, but the lighting and animation added so much colours to the gate as a symbol of unity of European Union, which I considered it as a propaganda. I accompanied with a Russian classmate as I was watching the performance. It’s interesting to notice how bad a Russian wishes to join the EU family as Russia is geographically located in Europe. Given the EU’s sanctions against Russia, it wouldn’t be possible for the polar bear to join, unfortunately. Leaving out the political matters, it would always be the biggest reward if you take a look at what’s happening in the city that you are visiting–sometimes you can participate in a free event like this.

"Unity of Light"–light show at Cinquantenaire Square

“Unity of Light”–light show at Cinquantenaire Square

The Royal Palace has nothing but a huge crowd drinking and yelling together. It was a night right before the Brussels Marathon–hundreds and hundreds of people gathered and sit on the ground to chill and have fun as the officials have blocked the roads to prepare for the race. Without any company, I didn’t drink and walked across the main street over and over until a British guy approached and asked me about the situations in Hong Kong. It was an awkward situation but also a good way to build up your network to ask for more places for accommodation, if you want a different experience other than staying in hotels and hostels.

Royal Palace–a place where hundreds of youngsters get drunk at night

Royal Palace–a place where hundreds of youngsters get drunk at night

Amsterdam in 24 hours

Amsterdam Centraal Train Station, the largest train station in Amsterdam with 250,000 daily visitors.

Amsterdam Centraal Train Station, the largest train station in Amsterdam with 250,000 daily visitors.

Freedom isn’t free, so does your choices of travelling when you’re on a tight budget with 100 Euro to travel 4 countries in a week, including 5 days in Brussels for a futuristic story on drones.

But leaving out all the disadvantageous factors in my travel plan, I have a Dutch buddy who studied in Hong Kong and agreed to accommodate me for a night. So I decided to stay in this city of charm–Amsterdam.

Excited but also exhausted after the day-long journey, I arrived at Bijlmer ArenA station and was picked up by my Dutch buddy at late night.

The “container” he lives has a post-modern outlook with a prison-like entry, yet the surrounding of the main entry has full of barricades to prevent outsiders climbing along the staircase. “It’s easy to build flats with this way of architecture,” he said.

Bear in mind that I was on a budget. I don’t have any fancy on luxurious hotel facilities, nor breath-taking panoramic views outside the window. Basically I just wanted to survive and see the city without doing any stupid tourist routine. So I only planned to wander around the city centre and check out what makes it so charming to attract 180 different nationalities and 45% ethnic minorities to live there, according to the Dutch official tourism board.

Cheese, seeds and coffee shops

Vondel Park, the most popular park in Amsterdam

Vondelpark, the most popular park in Amsterdam

Forget about the windmills and water canals–the advancement of information technology has killed all the exotic scenes as they are not new to your visual perception anymore.

Visited Old Amsterdam cheese store at the city centre, it was the greatest temptation for travellers to lose their rationality to save money. I couldn’t resist but try as many types of free cheese as I could–I must admit all kinds of goat and cow milk cheese tasted like heaven.

If cheese is compulsory for visitors to have a glimpse of the old factory in the Netherlands, then seeds and coffee shops are the most eye-opening items in this free society.

As a news nerd who is anti-alcohol, anti-smoking, and anti-drugs, marijuana wouldn’t be my preference to take but I did go to these shops to take a look. Inside the seed shops, I was surprised by the varieties of the seeds to grow marijuana–people are treating these “illegal”(in the mind of an Asian) drugs as their daily routine. According to the Dutch government, there is a toleration policy regarding soft drugs and coffee shops respectively. It is legal to sell no more than 5 grams of cannabis and 5 cannabis plants respectively.

Laid-back attitude

The world known Van Gogh Museum which charges you 17.5 Euro for entry fee.

The world known Van Gogh Museum which costs 17.5 Euro for entry fee.

As a journalism student and an enthusiast of international organisations, several world heritages including Amsterdam’s City Archives recognised by United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

Yet, given my respect to Hugo, the Dutch friend who accommodated unconditionally, I decided not to visit the heritage sites but followed his daily routine in the weekend. Instead of paying 17.5 Euro to the Van Gogh museum, we laid on the grassland outside the museum, enjoying the fresh air in this stressless kingdom. Later, we passed through the water canal and went into a vantage cloth shop to take a look at the fashionable Dutch in the 60s.

But the Dutches are crazy about football. So Hugo and his roommate can spend hours of playing FIFA games and hours for the real sports matches. “You should relax man,” he said. I then stopped talking and tapped the keyboard.

De Wallen(red light district)

Red-fringed window in De Wallen, Amsterdam

Red-fringed window in De Wallen, Amsterdam

For most of the ordinary men in the world, we could rarely find someone who could resist the instinctive drive of human civilisation–sex. I wasn’t an exception. As to find out why the Dutches are so fond of freedom and tolerance, we went to the red light district to see the interactions between prostitutes and tourists. Without a surprise, when we walked along the street, prostitutes glanced at us with sexually suggestive gestures.  We didn’t pay for live sex show nor erotic museum anyway.

Stunned, I kept thinking of why they end up their lives here–is it because of them being forced to be one? OR  is it simply because they decided to make it as their profession? Having all these questions in my head, would it be moral to be sympathetic to those showing their bodies behind the windows?

But the debate lies in whether we, as journalism students, could take pictures and videos of the prostitutes for the sake of making documentation. “You should respect the dignity of prostitutes, so don’t take a picture showing their faces,” Hugo said. As a sign of respecting my Dutch friend’s advice and the prostitutes, I gave up taking shots or videos showing how prostitutes recruit their customers. Given that  I didn’t zoom in my camera to get any of their faces, I did take some long distance shots to show what the district looks like.

The scene of women being objectified in the district couldn’t get rid of my mind when I was heading to Brussels. There was a moment when I attempted to jot the numbers sticking outside the window and fancied if I could arrange some interviews to write a feature story about the prostitutes working in De Wallen.

It’s free to find the truth but the burden of morality will leave an unforgettable mark in your life forever.