You are sitting in a café in the Markt, or the Market Square. You had to rush into it as it had started pouring, and now, ten minutes later, there is bright sunshine. There is a word for this, a well-fed Belgian with luxurious growth of facial hair (technically it was a moustache, but it covered three fourth of the surface area of his face) had told you earlier, in the local, Flemish, language. The Belgian was very friendly and made heroic efforts to speak English. You had nodded from time to time trying to convey the impression that you were appreciative as well as grateful for his troubles, jumping on occasions out of the reach of his flailing arm to avoid your eyes getting poked. You think he was giving you general directions of the interesting places you could visit, but he could well have been telling you the recipe of Waterzoostje and the relative merits of adding to it Belgian beer instead of wine; you did not actually understand much of what he was saying. Anyway, the Flemish word for the weather where rain and sunshine play hide and seek sounded like Jebure. You like the sound of the word; you don’t think there is an equivalent word for it in English.
You have travelled to Bruges in the morning from Brussels, and it took just under an hour. On your way you had browsed through the tourist guide. It had compared Bruges to Cinderella—the city was left behind in its “medieval rags” while the other Flemish cities “joined the ball of industrialization in the nineteenth century”. But, like Cinderella, Bruges, eventually, in the twentieth century, found its prince charming: tourism. It is apparently the most visited city in the whole of Belgium (which, admittedly, is not a very big country). Indeed, as you walked from the railway station to the Markt, which, the tourist guide suggested, was the best place to start, there wasn’t much of the promised charm of “stagnant waters and mouldering walls”; and the streets, on which hordes of tourists—you were one of them— marched, were anything but “quietly melancholic”. The Markt essentially is a wide space beneath the mighty Belfry, although you wouldn’t suspect that, chock-a-block as it is with stalls of multicoloured awnings, selling an assortment of articles. And noisy. You hear lively arguments and clever bargaining all around you as you walk amongst the grubby stalls. It is a bit like, you imagine, working for the United Nations; almost no one speaks English. However, judging from the guffaws emanating all around you, the folk, here, are sharp-witted (unlike those in the United Nations).
You look around yourself. The Café is very Flemish in its style (As is only to be expected; the Flemish culture is for sale here). At the entrance is a stylish wooden porch. From the ceiling and walls hang brass lamps, and the walls are painted yellow. Some of the windows are stained glass—mostly of dull brown colour, making patterns you cannot not recognise. The façade on the outside of the building, however, appears to be neo-Gothic, which, you think, is slightly at variance with the interior, Flemish, décor.
An impossibly tall waiter with a caterpillar moustache and a slightly mad glint in his eyes had shown you to your table. The leather-bound menu is longer than the Treaty of Versailles, with overrepresentation of chips and salads. The waiter comes to take your order. You order a Croquet Monseigneur and ask him what fruit beers they keep. At this the waiter becomes melancholic, brings his mouth so near to yours that you can, if I wish (which you don’t), count the pores on his face, and he (if he so wishes, and he might well be) yours, and informs you that they have only one variety: Framboise. You hastily assure him that that would do. The beer arrives quickly enough. Not having anything better to do you browse through the menu again and discover a brief history of the café . The building, the menu informs you, is very old although the neo-Gothic façade (you feel pleased that you’ve identified it correctly) was added in the late nineteenth century (why?). In the 12th Century, a horse faced countess of a minor principality had watched the parade of the troops in the Markt-square, sitting on the first floor of the building. In 14th century, an archduke was given a grand banquet in this building. The archduke obviously survived the excesses, and, in later life spent a great deal of time and money (than was necessary) perpetuating his own memory, and wrote several (romantic) versions of his life, and that’s how the cafe, once a grand private house, and now a café—owned and run by the same family for over four decades—found its tiny niche in the history.
You are sitting very near to the bar. An elegant middle aged blonde with a baggy top that hides (what you imagine to be) big breasts is standing behind the bar and giving what appears to be a good bollocking to one of the waiters who stands staring sullenly at his toes. She must be the proprietor (or proprietoress), you decide. A middle-aged man wearing a suit is sitting with an unopened newspaper in front of him, a glass of beer in his hand, staring at the opposite wall, apparently in deep thought, though not, you suspect, of any purposeful description. An old man—well oldish—enters the café with his daughter. They sit at the table diagonally opposite to yours. He whispers something into his daughter’s ear who giggles girlishly, and his hand begins exploring her inner thighs, slowly making its way—as if it has a life all of its own—towards her crotch that makes you reconsider your first impression about their relationship. You suddenly become aware of a stench coming from my right, which you realise, is coming from an old woman who is wearing the most crumpled clothes in the history since a trunk was salvaged from the Titanic. The smell is a combination of boiled cabbages, a sinkful of unwashed dishes, a dog, and tobacco. You debate in your mind whether the smell is emanating from her body or her clothes or from both the sources. You conclude that you are not going to be able to come to a definite conclusion unless you went to where the old womanis slurping her beer (the smell could have been coming from her mouth) and took a lungful of the foetid air, which, you further concluded, you are not prepared to do. A young—well, youngish— couple enters the café with their toddler in tow. You remember seeing them on the train from Brussels. The child, when it was not running towards the door of the carriage with suicidal intention, was talking incessantly, most of which was gobbledegook, and the mother, instead of restraining it, was responding in the kind of baby-talk that you find most annoying, encouraging more gibberish from the child. The father, who wore a faded-blue baseball cap that probably was on his head every day and night for ten years, looked as though he was just about restraining himself either from pushing the child from the train or outrunning it to the carriage door and jumping out himself. The couple makes its way to a table to your left. The father still has his baseball cap on. You have a theory that men who wear baseball caps all the time are either bald or wankers or bald wankers. The child has lost its earlier sunny disposition and is whining something which only its mother understands. It is probably hungry. The husband removes his baseball cap: he is bald. You become aware of a presence next to my table. It is the waiter (who was bollocked by the proprietoress)) squinting at you as if he would have liked nothing better than to wring your neck. He bangs the plate on my table with as much violence without actually smashing it, muttering something under his breath which you cannot hear properly. You aren’t sure if he is saying the name of the dish you’d ordered or casting doubt on the virtue of your female relations.
‘Excuse me?’ you say.
There is an exaggerated sigh, and he says, “Ham sandwich.”
‘Is that the same as Croquet Monseigneur?’ you ask.
Either the waiter thinks it is beneath him to clarify the matter or he has exhausted his repertoire of English. He stares at you; you stare back at him. The waiter who had originally shown you to my seat comes and clarifies that the stale white bread swimming in oil is indeed what you had ordered. You order another bottle of Framboise. You take a mouthful of Croquet Monseigneur, and, unable to admit how vile it was, take another one, which forces me to believe what you do not want to. You decide to wait for the Framboise. You begin looking around. A young blonde wearing dangerously low cut jeans enters the restaurant and begins chatting with a middle-aged tosser sitting near the entrance of the restaurant. A smart, slim, bald man emerges from behind the bar and joins them. As he speaks he rests his palm on the young woman’s derriere. As you are trying to figure out the nature of the relationship between the two, the middle-aged blonde with the baggy top steps out and makes her way towards the group. She stands on the other side of the man, who puts his other palm on her posterior. You notice that the bald father of hyperactive child is also admiring the young woman’s jeans from behind. You decide that the three of them are family, the young woman being the daughter of the other two. This hypothesis receives a boost when the three of them walk back towards the bar. The bald man stops to tousle the hair of the toddler, who reciprocates by spitting out whatever it is eating at his tummy. The old geezer and the young woman (who is most definitely not his daughter (or, if she is, they have a very disturbing relationship) are in the middle of a very long and passionate kiss. “They should just go home and get on with it”, you think. Your beer arrives, and you renew your attack on the Croquet Monseigneur. The sandwich has the consistency of a wet towel and the oil burns your mouth like sulphuric acid. You think of all those less fortunate people than you, in Africa and Asia, who would run miles to wolf zestfully much less savoury objects, and who would, no doubt, embrace the sandwich with open molars. It is no good. You can’t continue without incurring the risk of corroding your bowels. You decide to leave. Before leaving you want to check the first floor of the establishment where the loos are located. Urinals occupy the whole of the first floor, except one door marked ‘Private’. As you relieve yourself slowly and forcefully you wonder idly whether the horse faced countess had watched, several centuries ago, from that very spot, the parade in the Markt. You conclude that it was unlikely, as the urinal is not facing the square.
You come down; pay the bill without a tip, and walk out into the Market Square.