Thursday, March 19, 2009

Brussels

All the teams awoke to the surprise that our competition would be truncated in two parts. Monday through Wednesday was a wrap and Thursday would begin a new game for a new prize (two plane tickets). As we were all the guinea pigs on this inaugural trip, there were numerous rule changes in the past few days so the owner/operator/president/janitor running Competitours, Steve, decided it would be best to see how things would shake out under the new rules.

As the morning would bring a new game, my teammate David and I agreed to swap teammates with the team in discourse, so now I would be on the move with Elizabeth.

One of the most positive rule changes to the game was that there was no more time limit, but rather a maximum number of points a team could attempt on any given day. The changes slowed the pace of game and allowed teams to start or finish at whatever time they so chose as they could only attempt tasks totaling a maximum of 75 points. Scores awarded for the tasks were a binomial, meaning that if two teams completed the same tasks, one team would receive the high score for the task and the other would receive the low score. There is no in between. The number of tasks to achieve a maximum of 75 points, should the team receive full marks, was between two and seven based on complexity and geography.

There is strategy in the scoring that I liken to those Stock Market games, where people are given a fictitious $100,000 or so and after a week the person that has the most money wins. While in real life most people would want to build a balanced portfolio, in a stock market game it is generally the one that takes the most risk that will win, i.e., go for all or nothing. One might assume that the winner of a Stock Market game will finish in positive territory, i.e., with more than they started with. That being the case, it doesn’t matter if you finish with zero, $100,000 or anywhere in between, you still wouldn’t win the game. Leverage up, go for broke. Put it all on 16 red on the roulette wheel. As the scores in our little travel game were binomials, it was similar logic in attempting fewer, higher scoring tasks. The team that wins will choose the higher point value, higher risk challenges and that’s what Elizabeth and I decided to do. Before I get angry e-mails telling me that’s what got our country in trouble in this latest financial fiasco, this is all in theory as it is a game! But I digress…

The first order of business in the morning was to hit the train station and make our way to Brussels, Belgium home to moule frites and Manneken Pis. Upon arrival we were told to store our bags in the train station lockers and be back at 7:30 PM. In evaluating out options for the day we decided to hit the first task at a nearby brewery. Four other teams had a similar idea, so we had to up our game. Our task was to film a commercial for this Belgian brewers Framboise (raspberry) beer that might appeal to the US audience. Rather than tell you about it, I will let you have a look for yourself, here.

Our plan of attack was to do a high point value challenge outside of Brussels, but I wanted to see the Atomium, an attraction built for the Worlds Fair in 1958. The shape of the silver aluminum clad structure is based on an iron crystal…magnified 165 billion times. Elizabeth and I had a LASER-like focus as we were planning our day while riding the subway on our way to the Atomium. At one point when we looked up there were no other people, which only made sense when we realized that we had missed the last stop and were in the train yard. Yup, we were the savvy travelers sent to test out this game that ended up in a train yard. We didn’t know if the train was going to move again before the end of the day or if perhaps someone might notice us. We did have a good laugh though. It was only several minutes before train personnel walked past and we were able to get their attention to secure our release.

While the Atomium was an interesting structure, it was a little light on content in the exhibits inside. There was a north pole/south people exhibit which was rather weak in comparison to the Antarctica exhibit I had seen in Christchurch, New Zealand. The Atomium took a bigger bite out of our day time-wise than we estimated so we had to get moving to catch a train to Antwerp for our next challenge.

When getting back on the subway Elizabeth chatted with a guy, Hugos, for some information on getting to Antwerp. The information was infinitely helpful until we realized that we didn’t need to go to Antwerp at all, but rather to a town called Namur. Elizabeth again asked Hugos about our destination to which he replied, “Namur, I live there. I am going there right now”. We immediately hitched our wagon to his star. Hugos was beyond kind in getting us to the proper train station in Brussels, showing us where to get tickets and loading us on the train. Better than that though, he called his wife to do some research for us on the citadel that we had to visit AND was going to give us a ride there once the train arrived in Namur.

People always ask me what the best part of traveling is. This was it; the kindness of strangers. There have been dozens of times in my travels that complete strangers have helped me out from something as simple as pointing me in the right direction to taking me in their home, feeding me and having me stay for the night…or three.

Again, I don’t want to reveal all the tasks we had done as they may well be repeated by future Competitourists, but we did have to hurry so as to catch a train back to Brussels and then with the whole group head to our next destination. I will say though that Elizabeth was a champ; running when needed, having no regard for personal embarrassment and even descending a steep, sheer bank for the sake of a video.

Just as we were finishing our video the grace and kindness of another stranger happened upon us. Clare was a student from France doing an internship in Namur and was out for a walk. Clare did a little filming for us and then walked us down through town and to the train station. As we had a few minutes before our train, we bought Clare and ourselves waffles of the countries namesake.

Namur was a delightful city; big enough to have everything you might need, but small enough to keep its charm and not be overwhelming. I was sad to leave without having the opportunity to really check it out, but that was the nature of the trip.

We made it back to the Brussels train station with just enough time to meet the rest of the group and collect our train tickets to the next destination, Paris. While in Belgium I didn’t get to eat moule frites or even see the Manneken Pis statue for that matter, I was going home in a way; to a city that I lived for a year and a half. Paris.

Our arrival in Paris was prior to midnight, but not by much. As a small group of us walked out of the train station there was some uncertainty as to where our hotel was. I simply said, while pointing, “It’s this way” and began walking. The group didn’t seem convinced I was right and opted not to follow. I walked to the hotel, checked in, got cleaned up and headed over towards Elizabeth’s hotel to grab her for dinner and a planning session. It was the first time on the trip that the whole group was not in the same hotel. For some reason the Parisians don’t particularly care to have large groups of people in their hotels at one time, so we had to split the group in two. As I was leaving I saw another gathering of our crew standing on a street corner unable to locate the hotel. I pointed them in the right direction and met up with Elizabeth for a late dinner of Entrecôte, which is a Parisian staple, a glass of wine and a strategy session for the following day. None of this lent itself to getting back to my hotel prior to 2:30.

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