According to the guide on our walking tours of the city, Bruges has four gustatory claims to fame: beer, chocolates, fries and waffles. He gave us samples of all four. Because she’s gluten intolerant, Joy couldn’t sample either the waffles or the beer, so she compensated by doubling up on fries and chocolates. I, on the other hand, did as I was told. I confess–we’ve got to get out of this town soon. We’re in grave danger of calorie overload, especially of those packaged in chocolate.
What’s worse: Wednesday we have to face our children. Many months ago we appointed Candy our dietician, advising us how to eat right to stay fit. Frankly, she has taken the assignment much too seriously. Even when she’s not with us in person, her spirit hovers. We can’t even sneak a chocolate bit (and yet another chocolate bit) without feeling her disapproving eyes on us. When we meet her we’ll explain the medicinal value of dark chocolate on people’s cholesterol level. Joy has no cholesterol problem, but takes chocolate just in case. I think her practice is called sympathetic eating. She feels it would be disheartening for me to have to take my medicine alone.
We were introduced to these temptations in the delightful company of Kevin and Jenni, who came from Genk for a day to show Indianapolis friend Alicia the sights. Kevin Verstraeten is a native of Belgium. He did the same
terrible thing to Jenni’s parents, Monica and Jeff Reynolds, and grandparents, Kent and Donna McQuiston, that our rapscallion Aussie Michael Ohanessian did to us. He stole Jenni and carried her off to Belgium. She went willingly, as did Candy. (Here’s the problem with parenting: You bring up your children to be independent adults. And you succeed!)
We’ve known Jenni since before she was born. When I was pastor of East 38th Street Christian Church in Indianapolis, her grandfather Kent was chairman of the church board. He also was our tax accountant for 25 years, doing his best to keep me out of trouble with the IRS. The McQuiston kids and ours were about the same age, our boys fairly regularly getting into trouble together. I had the privilege of marrying their son Matt to Joanna and daughter Monica, Jenni’s mother, to her father Jeff. Unfortunately the McQuistons and Lawsons share something else, the loss of our sons.
I suspect you can guess how privileged Joy and I felt that the grandkids and kids of our longtime friends wanted to spend a day with the elderly. And what a good day, touring and talking and eating together. We caught up on their interesting lives. They live in Genk where Kevin works full-time in a sports ministry, using athletic camps and demonstrations to befriend young people and earn the right to share his Christian faith. He and Jenni are passionate about this ministry.
Joy and Alicia had a great time together. They’re both photographers, and Bruges is a photographer’s paradise. They compared notes, gave each other tips, and helped the rest of us see through their eyes.
A couple of days earlier we learned that Belgium’s coast is only a short (15-minute) train ride from Bruges. We decided a day trip was in order. Besides, it’s a direct train; no connections to make, no way to get lost. We’re water people, having both grown up on the Oregon coast, so we were eager to get to the beach.
Belgium has only 41 miles of coastline; Ostend is the largest of the 15 resorts crammed into this small area, we were informed. Its beach is wide, its boardwalk (of stone and concrete) one of the most spacious we’ve seen. High rise buildings line the way. This is anything but a quiet little resort town. But it’s family friendly, a good destination for a brief holiday.
Joy also discovered a two-hour photography class—she’s always on the lookout for them. She signed up for “Discover Bruges Rediscover Photography.” Turned out she was the only taker, so she had the teacher to herself as they shot photos around the city. She liked what she gained from him. Of course, he recommended she buy an expensive lens for her camera. (I must not keep encouraging this expensive habit.)
On our first day here I told Joy we should eat out one meal a day, to advance our acculturation. We generally do our own cooking. She liked my idea, so she selected a restaurant with linen tablecloths. Always a bad sign. We studied the menu. Food options looked good. Then we studied the prices. We’ve been mostly eating our own home cooking.
Bruges (spelled Brugge here) is a fascinating city in a fascinating country. Belgium is an almost artificial construct. It has been overrun too often—by Danes, Germans, French, Austrians, Spanish, English, Dutch. It has no natural boundaries, no means of defeating its predator neighbors. Centuries of suffering occupation at their hands has left Belgium with something of an inferiority complex, we’ve been told. It just can’t compete with the big nations. It’s been the unified nation we know for less than 200 years of its long, complex history. The people are divided linguistically into Flemish- and French-speaking sections, with other local dialects compounding the picture. We’re getting around readily with English, since it’s the go-to language for the Flemish who don’t speak French and the French speakers who won’t speak Flemish. They resort to English if they must.
The 20th century was hard on Bruges and the rest of Belgium, which was one of the main theaters for World War I and a hotly contested territory in WW II. Its minor status in Europe, however, became an asset when the belligerents (Germany, France, England) needed a “neutral” location to house the headquarters of the European Union. Brussels is that location.
Bruges was so insignificant and poor following its glory days in the 15th century–when it was a central meeting place for Flemish, Walloon, German, Frisian and Anglo-Saxon merchants–that it was able to survive much of the two wars’ devastation with many of its buildings intact. It wasn’t important enough to destroy.
The result is that the rediscovery of this almost hidden town that began in the 19th century paved the way for its booming tourist industry in the late 20th and now into the 21st century.
JOY’S PICK OF THE PICS