A Beer in Bruges
On a cold, not-so-stormy night in the small town of Bruges, Belgium, my companion and I gallivanted on the rugged, cobbled streets, adamantly attempting to avoid any Christmas markets.
Now, I feel obliged to provide context for the situational abhorrence of these festive, fleeting spaces – Vinayak and I were travelling around Western Europe during the latter half of December. Having spent the first week of our trip in Amsterdam and Brussels, a fair share of our evenings was devoted to Christmas markets, making generous donations to the Purchase a glass of mulled wine at every festive establishment and keep the frigid winters from numbing your bones charitable organisation.
Fortunately, these spaces weren’t difficult to avoid. It was 5pm, natural light had bid us farewell, and as a result, any atypically lit-up space implied a stunning trap of local, overpriced yet delicious food and handicraft consumerism – both of which I had definitely indulged in enough.
The only seemingly sensible way to keep our warmth and wallets intact in this visually mesmerising tundra was, naturally, a bar. As seriously indecisive travellers – not a very favourable combination – we situated ourselves in the first watering hole we laid eyes upon. And as a seriously indecisive traveler with an unusual liking for bartenders and baristas, my seating decisions were made for me.
We situated ourselves on the bar stools, not-so-coincidentally across a rather handsome bartender, Joe. He was dressed in a well-ironed black button-down; his glasses were bordered with a minimalistic, crisp frame; his hair was gelled so intentionally it seemed as though he manually dedicated a position to each strand of luscious blonde.
Although neither of us are enthusiastic beer drinkers, Vinayak and I felt obligated to do so in Belgium. I was preoccupied contemplating the most appealing ways to stir up conversation with Joe, and as a notoriously horrible multitasker, it was a relief to have obligation select my toxin for the night. Rather unfamiliar with the beer world, I had Joe serve me his favourite of the classic Belgian golden toxins.
I think we spent over an hour on those uncomfortable stools; my behind was not nearly as pleased as my brain. However, the quality of the group’s conversation more than justified the quality of the bar’s seating arrangements.
Born and raised in this cozy town of Bruges, Joe gave us a lesson on some of the best and worst aspects of his hometown. Vinayak and I, born and raised in the neighbouring continent of Asia, then shared anecdotes of our lives in the not-so-cosy city of Mumbai, India. Such completely serendipitous moments of genuine connection and cultural exchange deemed airport lines, layovers, airplane food such trivial inconveniences.
Twenty minutes in, and the three of us hadn’t shared even a moment of silence. Amidst the sound of glasses, running water, neighbouring conversations and celebratory clinks, Joe continued to give us lessons, this time, about Belgian Beer. He snuck away for a minute. “This is his job, he probably has others to attend to,” I figured. But he returned within a jiffy, effortlessly carrying a tray of five glasses – all filled with carbonated liquids, all different shades of golden-brown. It was time for the practical applicative portion of our lesson.
Vinayak and I weren’t beer drinkers, but we also knew well enough not to turn down free alcohol – so as to not disrespect the country’s traditions, of course. Fortunately, these golden potions were strong enough to temporarily numb the sting of earning in rupees and spending in one of the strongest currencies in the world.
As adventurers, we shared our mutual appreciation for culture, adventure and spontaneity. Dichotomously, as home-bodies who value family, we shared the little pleasures of living in one’s birthplace, in and around dear, loved ones.
Ninety minutes in, and I felt ravenous, yet extremely satiated, both at the same time. Physiologically ravenous, emotionally satiated. Once again, Joe came to the rescue and recommended some fabulous restaurants in the area that wouldn’t drill holes in our wallets. Compelled by non-negotiable hunger and paid-for train tickets, I reluctantly left this cosy haven, but not without Joe’s Instagram handle.
We were in this tiny dreamland of Bruges for half a day. I was as hungry as I was reluctant to leave. I struggle with short-term friendships as much as I struggle with making expeditious decisions. And I consistently crave spontaneous, deep connections as much as I crave the smell of a handwoven, nascently opened notebook made by a local craftsman whom I could probably make conversation with for hours, and sold at a Christmas market in a quaint European town.
Cover by Diogo Palhais