, Gloucester, MA

September 6, 2013

A trip to Brussels, flowers and cognac

Journal Pages
Susan S. Emerson

---- — It is 6:30 a.m. as the flight attendant finishes up his hurried collection of breakfast trays, and the plane begins what the captain has predicted will be a very long descent into Amsterdam.

I raise my window shade to a surreal sky: dawn has not yet broken, and a brilliant line of orange light separates the still-black sky below the plane from a wide cushion of smoke-colored, puffy clouds above.

Suddenly the city appears as an endless, completely flat stretch of lights that, moments later, abruptly changes in the light of day, to a verdant landscape laced with canals. Windmills are everywhere.

Dazed and back on terra firma, we hurry to make our short connecting flight to Brussels, Belgium. The pilot speaks from the cockpit in Flemish, a language akin to nothing we have ever heard, and then again, in hesitant English. As the flight attendant quickly delivers little bags containing chilled orange juice and a scrambled egg sandwich, we hear her speak to other passengers in perfect English, French and German.

My husband, the travel sleuth, had suggested making Brussels our destination after reading that it has the most beautiful main square in all of Europe.

Months earlier in planning the trip, he had read aloud to me the past and present history of the “Grand-Place,” referencing the “Flower Carpet,” an event that had taken place biannually in the city’s square since 1971. A photo showed the square with 700,000 cut flowers arranged to form a 250-foot long Oriental rug . But we’d be visiting in an off-year. There was certainly much else to enjoy in the huge, architecturally elegant Grand-Place and its environs.

We pushed through crowds to get a glimpse of the “Manneken Pis,” the most-visited and photographed piece of art in the city. It’s a charming, 1619 bronze statue by Jerome Duquesnoy (a copy of its 1377 stone counterpart), depicting a plump little 2-year-old boy peeing into a fountain.

We ate in nearly every outside restaurant in the Grand-Place, sampling local salmon, frites (Belgium’s upscale and perfected answer to French fries), and fresh local vegetables. Street performers serenaded on accordion and saxophone as we enjoyed the best ice cream and chocolate ever!

We sauntered through the Musee Communal, admiring Bruegel paintings and intricate, exquisite Belgian tapestries. We chuckled at the top-floor display of some 50 of the many more costumes given by people the world over to “cover up” the Manneken Pis (Elvis Presley’s familiar white sequined suit was my favorite).

Two days before leaving Brussels, we spoke with our hotel’s concierge regarding train schedules back to Amsterdam. We had stumbled, yet unaware, on the biggest surprise of the whole trip.

As he confirmed and printed out our train reservations, he asked if the hotel (a sponsor of the event) might offer us the gift of a pair of coveted tickets to Mayor Freddy Thieleman’s (chairman of the event) reception and preview of the first edition of the biannual “Floralientime” (plant & flower arranging event, henceforth to take place in the alternate years of the famed “Flower Carpet” event) at the Brussels “City Hall!”

Ever go to a cocktail party where, not only did you know no one, but most everyone was speaking Flemish? It was an elegant, catered fete, with a couple hundred guests and dignitaries, and we laughed out loud at our good luck, understanding nothing in the speeches, but smiling and clapping with the other guests.

We followed the crowd, ascending the wide marble stairs of the 500-year-old building that led us through huge, elegant rooms featuring the most amazing, inventive, dazzling flower arrangements imaginable.

On the way out of the courtyard, drinks were still being served, and as I scratched notes in a purse-sized pad, an elderly gentleman mistook me for a waitress, and in French (a bit more familiar than Flemish), ordered a cognac.

I gave him my sweetest smile, raised my finger in a “Yes! In just a moment” gesture thinking how sometimes, you just have to go with the flow.

Gloucester resident Susan S. Emerson is a regular Times columnist.