Monday, April 26, 2010

Stuck in Bruges

Bruges is a UNESCO preservation village and therefore, extremely clean. The streets are steamed clear of debris; the horses wear special rubber sluices with bags on the end to catch droppings as they clop briskly along the rocky roads, pulling photo snapping tourists, for 35 euros a ride. Perhaps the preservation regulations contribute to the quaint uniformity of the town, which after four days begins to feel contrived; every restaurant offers pretty much the same menu, in three languages. Cheese croquettes, steak with fries, Mussels with French fries, everything with fries or just fries alone, Flemish stew, rabbit in beer sauce and prunes, which is quite good. We ate at Mozarthuis which is famous for its do-it-yourself grilling on a hot stone at the table. We decided to watch this process and ordered the asparagus instead.

White asparagus is in season in Belgium. I remember my Oma telling me how expensive and fancy white asparagus was; at formal dinners when she was a child and also as a new bride, white asparagus was so special, it was served as a separate course. There was even a special fork to be used just for this course. The utensil enabled the diner to hold the spear in place while cutting it. Asperges Flamande turned out to be eight white spears of asparagus, with their bottoms wrapped in smoked salmon, topped with a béarnaise sauce.

Mostly the cuisine in Bruges is creamy. Several places take a healthier approach, but mayonnaise still finds its way into things, salad dressings, blended with herbs and chopped onion for a sauce to drizzle on the vegetarian plate at De Bron, where you must ring the bell to gain entrance. They only serve one course but they have three sizes. Each plate has brown rice, endive and sprouts, corn salad, pureed carrots, a little pot of pasta in tomato sauce and a falafel patty. It was a decent change from the more tourist-y places, although we still had to dodge the lines of tour groups coming up Katelijnestraadt.

We rented a tandem bike and with much laughter, took off towards the outer ring road. We crossed the bridge over the canal circling Bruges like a moat, to the tree lined canal that runs between Bruges and Damme, the next village over. Daffodils and tulips lined the bank and all the trees on one side were leaning away from the water as if planted on an angle. Trunks are pruned into muscular knobs from which sprout small bristly branches. We seemed to have enough energy to pedal the 5 kilometers, even detouring through some farmland on the way. Damme is a white washed, stone village with a large church, a central square and lots of little restaurants. We chose Tante Marie’s for lunch, chatting and watching other bike riders arrive. There were muscular men with slender, elegant girlfriends, teams of ladies of a certain age in slacks and sensible pumps, although whether heels are sensible for bike riding seems questionable to me. People of all ages and sizes ride bikes, ringing tinkling bells as they pass. Now I understand how the Belgians can eat so much cream!

We spent one more night at Die Swaene in a different room. What at first felt elegant had begun to feel stuffy, the lace and cupids less amusing, the stale cigarette smoke permeating everything in our suitcases. We changed hotels again to a 300 year old manor house with a peaceful garden and view of the Minnewater, where swans float on the Lake of Love. The airline said we could fly home over the weekend, so we decided to take a train somewhere, anywhere. Amsterdam?

I have been trying to find some kind of metaphor for this unexpected change in plans. For one thing, a complete, relaxing rest was really what we needed, instead of dashing all over India in 100 degree weather. My personal “need” for planning keeps being tested; perhaps it really is time to just go with wherever the winds, and the cloud of ash will allow us.

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