First was Brussels, the capital of the EU, where I stayed with Dimitri. He was hosting four or five of us at the same time along with his flatmates, making for a fun and crowded stay which was accented immediately by a rooftop beer-tasting session. It was a secret place he had lined up for us, on the top level of a parking garage that first night. Once on the roof, it took me just a few minutes to notice and touch an electrical wire at the top of the fence there, a surprisingly mild tactile discovery I wanted to share with anyone willing.
As I lifted a brave but petite Russian girl to help her reach it, she put her left hand on the thick metal part of the fence to stabilize herself before touching the wire with her right. I’m not an electrician, but based on what followed, apparently this act completed the circuit. She let out a scream and jerked back her right hand, which happened to be holding a girly flavored beer. For the rest of the night, my face and hair smelled like hops and strawberries. (Deservedly so.)
Nevertheless, she and a friend of hers explored Brussels with me the next day. We went to the Mini Europe “museum,” a fractional-scale recreation of famous sites from across the continent, and I taught them the sarcastic use of the word awesome. That night, Dimitri threw a jam party with his musician friends. We all made noise together for a while, then impressed each other with our solo and ensemble acts. Afterward, a small group of us went out to a few places including a bar where everyone danced on tables, and we scream-sang our throats raw as they closed the place with “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
Next was Bruges, a much smaller and quieter town known for its historic buildings, canals, and namesake action-comedy In Bruges. I wanted to see if Bruges was, as Colin Farrell’s character describes it, impressive only to retarded farmers, or if it really had the magical quality that I’d heard described by others.
After walking a few blocks from the train station to a suburban neighborhood, I met my hosts, Martine and her son. Merijn, 14, first introduced himself to me with his real name but quickly changed it when he saw me struggle, saying with a grin, “You can call me Jack.” He’d recently learned to speak fluent English through watching the Simpsons, but I couldn’t even pronounce his first name.
Martine told me that the weekend had been filled with festivities to mark the 500-year anniversary of the famous belfry tower in Bruges’ historic city center, and invited me to join her for the final part of it that night. We met up with a CouchSurfing friend of hers and enjoyed the mix of traditional and pop hits as performed by various choirs, with an instrumental introduction to each song that was actually played in real time on the belfry itself, its tower looming behind the stage.
After nearly a week of life-changing craft beers and crispy mayo-smothered fries (and a free hair trim — thanks, Martine), the morning I was slated to leave for Paris I found out that the French railways were on strike, limiting my options for getting there. So Martine drove me across the border to Lille and helped me get a ride at a gas station from two financial professionals, who took me all the way to Paris for free. Hitch-hiking for beginners. Oh, and the verdict for Bruges? Ace.