Before I went to Boston, I packed for India. We planned a three week trip around that vast country, from Mumbai to the Andamans. Since the plane uses the Brussels hub, we thought we’d spend a couple of days in Bruges, to take the edge off jet lag. Our itinerary took us to Mumbai on Friday morning, then across to the Himalayas in Arunachal Pradesh. My partner has been the main sponsor for a temple construction in this region for the past nine years. I packed for cool weather in Belgium and Arunachal, and mostly for very hot weather everywhere else.
Our flight was relatively comfortable. There were Belgian, French and Indian families and a group of Orthodox men, all carrying large hat boxes from Brooklyn, as if they had made the journey to New York expressly for the purpose of haberdashery. Midway through the flight, they all stood up, donned their hats and walked to the back of the plane for prayers.
We landed at 8 am, a little bleary but ready to locate the train in the basement level of the airport. Surprised by the number of stairs we had to negotiate with our suitcases, we walked down one flight of stairs and climbed another, located the correct track, direction Ostende. The train was a double decker, so we hoisted our luggage up and took seats on the upper level, watching the countryside roll by. Flanders is flat, green and decorated with clusters of brick and stucco farmhouses, tiled roofs and cement walls cut in a diagonal pattern that makes the side of the building look quilted.
Belgium is tri-lingual. People greet you and wait for your response, instantly deciding how to answer, in Flemish, French or English. I like to speak French to stretch my mind a bit, and try it as often as I could. Since I hardly ever have this opportunity I quickly break down, forgetting verbs, nouns, and giant chunks of grammar. People are patiently amused and speak to me in English.
De Barge hotel is a converted barge, sitting in the water of one of the canals. Our room had sloping lower walls, following the shape of the boat, tarps stretched on the ceiling, and two bright orange life preservers on the end of the bed. A sign on the window indicated the evacuation route was out, into the canal. Photographs of shipwrecks and a can of sardines with a plaque saying, “survival rations” in French graced the walls. Long barges floated by occasionally and several families of ducks swam around, just outside the window.
We set out to explore the winding, cobbled streets of Bruges. It is really a charming place, lined with 15th century buildings made of brick or stone, lace curtains, and stepped facades reminiscent of churches. Some have mullioned windows. Horse drawn carriages roll by, as well as buses and small cars and lots of people. We wandered towards the Markt square, which is lined with cafes and shops, and sat down in one café for a light meal. Mussels are steamed with celery and onion and served with fries and mayonnaise to dip them in.
Thursday, I went to the town alone for a while, poking into shops, churches and the Groeninghe Museum which holds Flemish paintings from the 15th century on, displayed against deep blue walls that bring the rich glazed colors to the fore. I met my traveling companion at the lace museum where we marveled at the lightning speed of the lace maker’s hands as she shuffled the wooden bobbins around the pins set in her pattern board. We wandered around through the streets and he disappeared into a hostel, emerging with an American woman who has been living in Europe for six months. It seemed she was friends with friends of his. We told her we were flying out the next morning and she said, No, I don’t think so. This was how we learned about the volcano in Iceland.
Our new friend, a photojournalist/English teacher, took us to a pub and set up her computer. We began searching the airline site, which was not informative. Airports were closing across Europe as the large plume of volcanic ash filled the airspace and spread over Britain, Belgium, Scandinavia and onward.
One thing I have learned since being widowed is that I am not in control of events. This is a helpful fact; I am off the hook for such things as erupting volcanoes which close the airspace over the entire European continent. It is clear that I have no say in what will happen later on today or next week. This has been a very hard lesson since I have lived most of my life under the misapprehension that if I planned well and stayed organized, things would go as planned.
I believed this because it could be empirically proven. Since I make contingency lists and planned for different possibilities, one of the possibilities is bound to occur, which proves the theory that I had something to do with this outcome. But, when you plan your future with someone you love, you don’t really know what will happen next. We always said we were in our marriage for the long haul; it was about 20 years shorter than I had planned. I thought we’d be together for a lifetime and we were; only just his. I still have a lot of mine left to live.
So now, along with perhaps a million other people around the world, I am stuck where I am, in quite a nice place. We are not sleeping on cots in an airport. We have dropped any attempt to go to India; the airport might open this evening but the earliest flight is not until Wednesday and even this could change. We have found a new part of town, a park with a tiny pond and fountain. We are enjoying the peace and quiet of this tidy European town. We are safe, comfortable and in a fine city. Die Swaene Hotel has welcomed us into its 13th century, roccoco arms. We might as well just settle in, be kind to ourselves and each other, and relax. The only thing we can really control is our own reactions. A swan swims in the canal, lovers kiss while taking pictures of themselves, children laugh and people stroll as the canal boat passes with its tri-lingual commentary. C’est la vie, la vie a Bruges.