Take a Back Road
I love tourists. I can easily spot them walking down the street in
Leiden. The signs are all there: way too comfortable shoes (a.k.a. not boots or converse), the
over-the-shoulder purse (women do use these here, but it’s while they’re riding
their bikes), a nervous spring to their step, if you’re lucky, a fanny pack.
Yes, I’ve seen them, which begs the question – do they still sell fanny packs
or has that man been hoarding that fanny pack in his closet since 1987? I don’t know.
But I love them all because I see them trying to nonchalantly review the
map on the street corners while their children keep watch for the imaginary ruffians
around. I want to run over to them,
point them in the right direction, and really
make their day. They are the only people in this city less familiar
with all the inner-workings of everything than me. I did help a lost Canadian once. She walked up to me and asked if I spoke
English, I happily replied “I do!” with probably a little too much
enthusiasm. She was in the train station
parking lot, but she didn’t know it and was wondering where the train station
was. So, that was an easy question to
answer. See? I’m knowledgeable.
After incorporating many of the lessons learned while traveling in
my family took a road trip to Bruges
for a long weekend in June. Driving in
the car was heavenly after the fiasco of the Thalys train to Paris. As the highway stretched before me with
fields aligning each side, I could almost
imagine us driving down I-35. To further
complete the road-trip experience, we stopped off at a Texaco to fill the tank
and grab lunch. We feasted on made-to-order
sandwiches of freshly baked bread, grilled chicken, and crisp vegetables. It was kind of like Subway, if only Subway
had a real bakery and a garden growing out back. The drive was only 2 ½ hours and as we approached
the town, the sun started to shine with a warmth we had not encountered this
year. Although the air was still crisp
outside, its rays warmed the car to the point we had to turn on the A/C. Happiness is the first time (not the 100th
time, like most of my friends in the U.S.
are doing right now) you turn on the A/C of your car after a long winter. We
pulled off the highway and started viewing close-encounters with dairy cows. I raised an eyebrow to my husband (the GPS
has led us down questionable paths before – including instructions such as
“board ferry”). But I decided to trust
it and sat back to enjoy the small country two-lane road it directed us
We had rented a gardenhome in the center of Bruges. After passing by a small suburban-like neighborhood complete with an Aldi grocery store, we discovered the hidden jewel that is
“When the headquarters of the
League moved from to Antwerp at
the end of the 15th century, many merchants followed, leaving abandoned houses,
deserted streets and empty canals. Bruges, a former hub of Europe,
slept for 400 years. The city slowly emerged from its slumber in the early
19th century as tourists passed through en route to the Bruges battlefield
In 1892 Belgian writer and poet Georges Rodenbach published Bruges-la-Morte ( Waterloo the Dead), a
novel that beguilingly described the town’s forlorn air and alerted the
well-heeled to its preserved charm. Curious, wealthy visitors brought
much-needed money into Bruges , and sealed
its fate as a town frozen in time.” Bruges
Read more: Lonely Planet
|Gate leading into Bruges
is still walled off from the world. After
curiously taking cues from the cars in front of us, we drove over the moat and through
a large fortress-like gate into the town.
We maneuvered the car down the tiny cobblestone streets and to our
surprise, were able to easily find parking on the street. The streets were seemingly abandoned as we
unloaded the car. My husband retrieved
the house-owner’s instructions from the front door of her house and our family inquisitively
walked around the block, found the walled garden in the back and unlocked door. Just like a secret garden, we were
transported back in time and after tromping through the overgrown grasses, we found
our tiny, but adequate garden home and entered.
The house was built in the 18th
century and the original stone fireplace still stood. It’s funny how the mind works. In a world of unfamiliar, my mind will often
stretch to grasp the familiar in ways it may not normally reach so far. As we played house in a Bruges
garden home built centuries ago, I felt a tug on my mind. The home reminded me of my grandmother’s home
in Lubbock and the connection took
a few days to pin-point: the floor was a rust-colored stone. The living room in my grandma’s house was a
rust-colored brick. Despite the fact
that she covered the brick with wall-to-wall carpeting when I was in elementary
school, the memory still lingered in long-forgotten file cabinet of my
mind. It just took an ancient house in Bruges
to dust it off and recall it.
All the guidebooks I had read described the town as an ideal backdrop for a fairytale. Walking through the town the next day, I would agree that Disney must have stolen the scenery for Rapunzel’s and Belle’s trips through town from
Bruges. But beyond the architecture, Bruges
reminded me of Disneyworld in many other ways. The primary modes of transportation were your
feet, carriage rides, and boat rides through tiny picturesque canals. As we meandered through the streets, it did
not feel as if any ‘real’ people lived there.
Even the lady who owned the house we stayed in seemed more like a ‘cast
member’ than a real resident. When she
wasn’t bringing us breakfast, she was giving tours through the city. Everywhere you looked people were glancing at
maps, speaking English, and taking photos.
If you don’t like tourists, this is not the place for you. Since we’ve been living here, I found it
extremely comforting. It was a quaint
little town, small enough to see everything by walking, like Savannah
in America. It has lots of history, some great sights, a
few manageable museums, and great food.
It wasn’t so overwhelming in that I didn’t feel guilty for taking a nap
with my daughter on Saturday, while my over-excited husband and son wandered
the town square and had a bottle. (V:
beer, Baby: milk, of course).
We took a canal ride and giggled as baby ducks were playfully swimming/being run over by the current created from the boat. We had Italian and Egyptian take-out. We took video of our daughter dancing in the Markt. We shushed our children as we breathed in the peacefulness of the only remaining almshouse community in the city. We ate Belgian chocolates in the shape of letters in front of ancient churches with the bells ringing. Our favorite stop though, was the French Fry (Friets) museum. Beyond zoos and aquariums, there are few museums which can catch the interest of a two year old, but French Fries are on the list. We learned about the origin of the potato, the development of it as staple crop during the famines of the 1770s, and how they cook fries in
Belgium. It’s a two-step process which involves beef
and horse fat (it was enough
information to spoil my appetite, I’d rather not know what fats they use to cook
the potatoes in The Netherlands – ignorance is bliss).
Late Monday afternoon after a full day of sightseeing, we loaded the car and pressed the Go Home button on the GPS. Happy and satisfied with the weekend adventure (without too much adventure), we queued up the Big Spring Texas Road Trip play-list I had created last fall. As we passed though Belgian and Dutch towns and farms, both kids slept soundly, and I turned to my husband and smiled. After months of pretending to be a resident in The Netherlands, casting ourselves in the role of Tourist from
is just an easier part to play.