Food & Drink · Travel

Ro’s Recipes: House Party in Bruges & Mariners’ Mussels

Phillippe was my first non-English boyfriend. He was a young, educated, elegant, cultured fellow from Brussels who knew and loved good food. He had lived in London for over a year, moving in top international, corporate, aristocratic circles. He treated me to a fancy Country House hotel weekend in Devon in the south of England; entertained me during several delightful dinners à deux in fine restaurants in London. He knew and applied all the accepted social rules. I was smitten.

Naturally, I was deflated when he told me his company told him to return to the Brussels office. But brightened when he asked me to join him for a weekend “house party” in Bruges with friends.

Off I went on a ferry from Dover to Bruges with my small “overnight bag” expecting a Euro-cool version of Upstairs-Downstairs. There he was – tanned and suave! Philippe met me with his spaniel in his volkswagen beetle convertible and we stopped for a simple late lunch in an orchard behind a sweet little country roadside restaurant.

After speed-driving along autoroutes and curling through village lanes, we arrived at a grand country house which backed up to a long, luxurious beach. 

“Bonjour! Comment ça va?” “Très bien, merci.” Gentle chatting in Franglish. (What, no tea?)

Though a little nonplussed by the fact that I hadn’t been shown a room where I could change, we all piled into our respective vehicles for the local hot disco bistro for the evening.

Lots to drink and only one little appetizer, then on to more drinking. More! (Le diner dans La Belgique was not dinner in England!) Not experienced in imbibing alcohol and clearly judged to be “non frais,” my balance and sobriety carried more importance in this foreign environment than the social norms of young upper class Europeans. I stuck with water.

Discombobulation had overtaken this lackadaisical weekend, the jarring of the unexpected and overturned naïve expectations. Still glad-smiling en Francais, I couldn’t settle into a simple dinner and have a conversation with Philippe and his friends!

An evening of disco dancing ended and after enquiring, I was shown to a room shared with another young woman, who disappeared overnight.

The next morning after a quick breakfast of croissant and coffee and with nary an appearance nor farewell from Phillipe, I left with gracious thanks to whoever was in the kitchen – I was never introduced to a host. Jean-Luc, one of the guests offered to take me to the ferry port.  He drove and waited with me for the next Sunday ferry, both in the English style, politely not referring to the emotional and social embarrassment that were unspoken beneath the raw awareness of the circumstances.

Misery trip back to Dover. Eyes open. Disgust. The sheep’s clothing lying in tatters.

Three weeks later Jean-Luc called. He was visiting London. We went to a little French-Belgian place so I could have the iconic Belgian Moules Marinière and Frites that I’d spoken of that ignominious weekend.

Over many happy meals of moules, Chinese, Indian, French, Turkish and English food, we developed a warmhearted friendship that we have both treasured for many years.

Sometimes out of the sad fire of misled expectations and blind hope evolves a phoenix of happy stories.

First steps into adulthood. Lessons learned the hard way give you what? Open eyes, open heart? With any luck.

Next Page: Ro’s Recipe for Mariner’s Mussels

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