Tears veiled my eyes. I had to gain my composure. I had 45 minutes to catch a connecting flight and it was on the other side of Philadelphia International. I made it to the small commuter plane and upon arrival in State College was welcomed “home” by my mom, sister, and a surprisingly excited Sandy III, my mom’s Golden Retriever. Three weeks of bliss in Belgium. Now, back to reality.
Several times during the longest vacation of my working life I was afraid I might not make it. Just after I left the States to visit my kids and bicycle in Belgium, I heard John Kerry was coming back prematurely. He broke his leg bicycling in France.
I was luckier than the Secretary of State. I had two minor spills. The first—slow-mo—happened as I was getting off my bike to take a photo along the canal path. I fell into a bed of stinging nettles. My biking pant cuffs were pulled over my socks, my fleece jacket covered by upper body, and the strong hands of a newly graduated 23-year-old pulled me up and out of danger. For the second fall, a tram track caught my tire. What seemed like half of Ghent watched me tumble, and I ended up with a bruise the size of a 5 Euro note on my right calf, not to mention the injury to my ego.
Despite the mishaps, it is the joys of bicycling I’ll remember. Our rental bikes from Max Mobiel were, as Richard describes them, “One size fits none”, but what a world they opened. We had hardly left Ghent when we got lost—but found an ancient farm windmill, muscular cattle resting in the grass, and patches of red Flanders poppies peppering the countryside. We biked along the North Sea in Oostende, careened over cobblestones in Bruges, and successfully biked from Bruges to Ghent 55 km (34 miles) with only one false start.
During three weeks of traveling by train, tram, metro, bus, car, cobblestone-blistered feet, and bike, I have to say biking is close to perfect. Besides being able to Brake for Photos, it is a wonderful way to SMELL Belgium.
The intoxicating scent of elder blossoms massed in hedgerows along bike paths and canals is etched in my memory. I Googled “scent of elder blossoms” because I have a tough time putting the “nose bouquet” into words. The most common description I read was “they smell like summer.” Well, that may be so if you grew up in Belgium, or the UK, but growing up in PA, summer smelled like Coppertone and chlorine. I didn’t meet an elder bush (Sambucus) until 15-20 years ago. Ah, yes, a whiff of the fragrances of elder blossoms, shrub roses, lavender, and, I swear, the sulfur-bearing compounds created from consuming asparagusic acid that tinged the air as I passed a park-side urinal not far from Station Gent-Sint-Pieters.
I’m told Belgians are practically born on bikes, or fietsen, as they call them. We actually bought train tickets for our bikes (8 Euro a day) and there were special sections where you could secure your fiets (bike) with a Velcro strap. We met a fellow cyclist on the train who already qualified for the cycling event in the 2016 Paralympics in Rio. When he heard I lived in the U.S., he mentioned that he had raced at the velodrome in Trexlertown. Ghent, by the way, has two velodromes, so popular is cycling.
Each day I’d give myself little goals, such as biking to the BioShop for groceries and carrying them back home to Marina’s and Koen’s house. Or navigating to a museum and exploring a bike trail through the adjoining park. After three weeks, I almost broke the habit of swinging my leg over the seat to clear the bar that wasn’t there—Big Red was a girl’s bike. On my last day, it was time to conquer my greatest bicycling fear—riding a bike in a dress. I kept pulling and tugging at my skirt, trying to keep my knees covered while those same knees were pumping up and down over the pedals. Finally, I threw modesty to the wind, and just rode.
Back to my motto: I Brake for Photos. I have a few for this blog, but it is the missed photo ops that are the clearest:
–Marina carrying Italian Jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides) trellised on a bamboo tripod about 4 feet high with pot tucked under her arm after a Sunday morning shopping trip at the Bloemenmarkt (Ghent flower market) at Kouter Square. There, you can stroll through heady drifts of potted lavender, dianthus, lupine, and delphinium while a brass band plays “California Dreamin’ “ in the gazebo and more adventurous souls sip champagne and guzzle fresh oysters too early in the morning. I didn’t get a photo because I was busy balancing a bag on my handlebar. I was carrying a pot of Campanula carpatica to plant in the wall cracks of the patio garden
–A man riding a bicycle with no hands, playing a harmonica with both hands.
–A woman wearing a soft cast from just below her knee to her ankle, riding her bike with crutches in a sling across her back. We were stopped at a traffic light together. By the time I thought to ask if I could take a photo, she was sprinting down the bike lane and I could never catch up…
Fleur-de-Family: The Art of BEing must include my ever-expanding Belgium family. Richard graduated from Vesalius College wearing my dad’s woven leather wingtips. They share more than a March 25 birthday. We had a post-graduation celebration with Richard, Sabine, and Lais, as well as Sabine’s family, Marina, Koen, and friends. I was entertained at Koen’s parents’ homes in typical Belgian fashion—quail eggs and ham on baguettes, lots of meat, potatoes, cauliflower, and homemade mayonnaise, plenty to drink, and, in not-so-typical Belgian fashion—sunshine. I met Koen’s twin brother, Sven, and Sven’s girlfriend Fleur, and ate a delicious strawberry tart with Koen’s grandparents.
I pushed a stroller, babysat, sang B-I-N-G-O, played peek-a-boo (coo-coo in French) and heard my granddaughter’s first words as she bent her tiny fingers toward her chubby palm: “Bye-bye.” Au revoir and Vaarwel. Laurie Lynch