Several years ago, as I was packing to travel through the southern part of America, my mother asked me what was my hurry to leave Kansas again. I had lived in New Mexico, Tennessee, and California. I had traveled extensively throughout America, driving cross-country on many occasions. I had lived in England and traveled throughout Europe, Thailand, and Malaysia.
I thought my answer to Mom’s question was very honest and logical. “Because, Mom, there are so many great things to see in this world. God’s created so many wonderful landscapes and it’s also amazing to see what people have accomplished. But, you know, there are always wars and disasters. What if we run out of time? What if we don’t get to experience all of the many wonders of the world before they are all destroyed by man or nature?”
Before I had finished my heartfelt statement, Mom was already packed and waiting in the car for me. We would travel throughout America together and I’m so happy now that we had those special moments. My mother entered heaven six years ago…and most of the beautiful world has been destroyed…not by nature or God, but by the will of man.
I was heartbroken last November when terrorist turned romantic, enchanting Paris into a battle zone. Now, today, my heart is again splitting in two as I read the news reports about the suicide bomb attacks on the airport and train in Brussels, Belgium. At least, 30 people were killed and many were injured.
My prayers today are with the people of Belgium. I had been in that lovely country at a very innocent time. When I was traveling the world, there was no fear of terrorist attacks. I was in Belgium at a time when the country was joyful and peaceful. I did not visit Brussels, unfortunately. I was in the lovely, enchanted city of Bruges, just sixty miles northwest of Brussels. Bruges is a place everyone should take the time to see someday, if there is still the opportunity now. It is a fairy-tale, charmed city that still maintains its centuries-old architecture. Most of the structures have been standing since medieval times (around the thirteenth century). Visiting Bruges is like stepping back in time. I am grateful I had the opportunity to experience this amazing city.
I had been living in England for just a month when the college I was attending arranged a trip to Bruges, Belgium, for all foreign students. We would be taking an overnight cruise on a Thursday and returning the following Sunday. Though the trip sounded enticing, several of my American friends debated if they should miss classes to go on the trip that was scheduled to leave on Thursday afternoon, November 26, 1992. They didn’t want to miss classes on Thursday and Friday. I thought I had the perfect solution. “But Thursday is Thanksgiving,” I stated. “You won’t be missing classes.”
“Um, Jamie,” the other American students informed me. “They don’t have Thanksgiving in England!”
Oops! My mistake! Of course, I knew that. I had just forgotten where I was for a moment. But I decided not to feel stupid. And I absolutely refused to feel guilty for skipping classes. Though I always believed school was important, I absolutely was not going to miss the trip to Bruges! I had come to England for the experience, not just the education. I wanted to see all that I could see. Any opportunity that presented itself to visit other countries, I’d be damned if I was going to pass it up! This would be my first trip to Europe and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. Unfortunately, now, that world is slipping away. I’m so pleased I decided to go on the cruise. I didn’t give my classes a second thought. I didn’t know if I would get another opportunity like this.
I had never been on a cruise before and loved being on the boat, even though, through another small bout of idiocy, I almost missed it. I had taken a taxi to the port early and arrived before any of my fellow American classmates or our faculty advisor, Tom, had appeared. I had been worried about missing the boat so I was content to arrive almost an hour early to meet up with everyone.
Slowly, my fellow travelers began to drift in until there were about thirty students sitting with Tom in the lobby waiting for the call announcing that we could board our ship. However, before we could get on the boat we had to fill out an immigration card. Card…what card? Oh, yes, that thick, little, yellow card we were given by the university when we signed up for the trip and I had just thrown away in the port lobby trash can while I was waiting to board because I didn’t think it was important. Now, I suddenly realized I wasn’t going to be able to get on the boat without it!
I wasn’t alone in my error this time, however. Most of the American students did not have their cards either much to the annoyance of the small customs officer guarding the gate. The officer was a short, skinny man with sparse gray hair, a loud voice, and a total lack of patience. He appeared to become even more aggravated and annoyed with each of the students who tried to pass through his gate without the appropriate documents. Explaining that the yellow cards had to be completely filled out before we could board, the officer loudly pronounced each student “Idiot” or “Moron” as he handed out additional cards and pens.
Suddenly, it was my turn at the customs desk and I was added to officer’s “moron” list. I took the card and the pen he handed me and ran over to a little bench against the side wall to fill out the document. I put down all of the necessary information: my name, where I was from, what country I was traveling to, and when I expected to return. I noticed that my fellow classmates had now boarded the boat and I was the last one left. I hurriedly applied my signature to the card and ran back to the gate. The officer snatched the card out of my hand and said, “You finally finished. You’re leaving the country. Good, we can all celebrate now that you’re gone.”
And all of a sudden, out of my mouth came the words, “Funny. That’s what they said when I left America, too.”
The customs officer suddenly stopped and stared at me for a moment…and then laughed out loud. He smiled at me so beautifully, wished me a great trip, and told me he hoped I traveled safely. He stamped my card, handed it back to me with a squeeze of my hand, and pointed out which direction I needed to go next. He walked me to the gate with an arm across my shoulders before telling me good-bye and returning to his desk. It was so strange to me that just those few words that popped right out of my mouth made the officer so kind and warm. It was a great start to the trip to Bruges, Belgium.
It got even better, too. We were traveling over night and one of the first things we did upon boarding the ship was enter the dining room for supper. My gosh, I have never seen so much food in my life! All kinds of food was lined up on every available counter space and steam table on the far side of the large room. The food was endless. People were lined up everywhere, grabbing first, second, and third platefuls of fish, chicken, steak, potatoes, vegetables, and rich, creamy deserts. The counters were never empty regardless of how much food the passengers seized. I imagined that all of the food could probably have feed hundreds of families for the next five years. As starving students, I don’t know if that fact occurred to us at the time as we continued to go back to the buffet tables for additional nibbles of the entrees. The food was there and we continued to indulge, our stomachs almost as deep and endless as the North Sea we were crossing.
About ten pm that night, while many of my fellow students were at the on-board bar, disco, or movie theater, I stood out on the deck and looked out into complete, never-ending darkness. Every now and then, I would see a small ripple of water, but I couldn’t believe how lost I was in the total blackness. There were no lights at all from the sky or the sea. I was just drifting away, alone, with no one or nothing to hold me down. I stood for a long time sailing away in the darkness, contemplating what would happen if I fell over the side of the boat. Now, this was very different. I wasn’t contemplating suicide, but I was being seduced by the nothingness and silence of everything around me. I just fantasized slipping into that darkness and letting myself drift peacefully away, floating into eternity. Finally, exhausted from the day, I breathed deeply into the blackness a few more times before finally going off to bed and letting the gentle currents rock me into a deep sleep.
The next morning, I woke up early and went for a morning run around the ship before meeting up with my classmates, Melissa and Sheilah. We walked around the ship singing “My Girl” at the top of our lungs. I was just so in the moment, feeling the sea breeze against my skin and the rocking of the ship under my feet, that I sang out loud in full voice, something I don’t usually do with other people around. I didn’t care who heard me that day. I was happy, carefree, and at peace.
After a few hours, we finally docked at the Belgium port and prepared to leave the ship. Most of us from Hull University got off the ship easily but had a long wait on the bus that was going to take us to our hotel. I couldn’t imagine what was taking so long for us to leave. Everyone grew more concerned as Tom left the bus several times to run back to the docked ship. After forty-five minutes, we were finally given some information. One person from our group was missing. The absentee had been found but there was another problem. He was too drunk to get off the ship. He had partied so much the night before, that officials were working relentlessly and furiously that morning trying to revive him.
For many of the students, this was one of their first moments of freedom, away from home, family, and school, and they took full advantage of it. It certainly didn’t help to be on a ship that had several bars, restaurants, movie theaters, discos, gyms, and food and drink everywhere. It was a boat full of temptation everywhere a person turned. Many people were enticed to indulge without limitations.
It was finally decided to leave the student behind and once he sobered up, he would join us in Bruges. He finally came stumbling out of a taxi in front of the hotel late in the afternoon. At least, he did make it and had the opportunity to see such a glorious city.
…And glorious it was! I fell in love with Bruges. It continues to be one of the most fascinating places I have ever been. I watched a Christmas holiday parade that proudly presented Saint Nicholas riding into town on a donkey. I took endless pictures of the unusual architecture and brick twisted streets. I’m fascinated with architecture and have countless photos of buildings and city views. I actually explored the city on my own. Everyone else opted to party at night and sleep the day away. I was just the opposite. I explored the city continuously during the day, walking through the gorgeous courtyards, dancing down the cobbled streets, daydreaming by the river, and fantasizing about being a princess in the thirteenth century. I went to bed early every night, so I could wake up to enjoy the sun rising over beautiful Belgium.
On the very last day of our time in this great country, I actually took on the role of tour guide for several late-night-partying students. I showed them the many highlights of the town before getting on the bus to head back to the docks. Several people later told me how much they regretted not experiencing more of this beautiful city. I have no regrets at all. I took full advantage of exploring Bruges on the limited time I had there.
It was a rough journey back to England on the ship, though. On the way to Belgium, the cruise had been very smooth and comfortable. “That’s because we are fighting the currents,” Tom informed me when I expressed my surprise at the rough rocking and tossing of the ship this time. That made sense. I could understand that but then he continued, “I’m really surprised we got to go at all. Last year, the crew forgot to shut the doors in the bottom of one of their passenger ships. The bottom filled with water and the whole boat capsized. Hundreds of people drowned.” Way more information than I needed. I went to bed that night, agonizing and praying over every bump and wave. I was relieved when we finally made it back to England the next morning.
But that scare did not stop me from believing that my time in Bruges, Belgium, was one of the most magical adventures of my life. Gorgeous, amazing, wonderful Belgium…my heart is breaking for you now. I pray for your recovery and I’m saddened for all of the people who never got to experience your majestic, enchanted atmosphere in the past. Visiting your amazing country has been one of my best memories. God bless Belgium and all of her people.