In Bruges - Dispatches from Europe

Tension radiated through the pouring rain, hitting me harder than any of the water droplets that showered over my freshly-washed hair. I felt like stopping everything – the rain, the stress, time itself – and enjoying the satisfying sound my steps made upon the cobblestoned streets that comprised most of Brugge. I wanted to step through the beautifully crafted stone arch we briskly passed and see what was in the courtyard beyond. I wanted to watch the sun light up the beautiful stained glass windows, to pretend I was Belle from Beauty and the Beast, saying “bonjour” to the townspeople who would of course be waving to me through the open windows of their neat French homes. Even though we were in Belgium, not France. The heart wants what it wants. Alas, this could not be. Every step we took without our destination in sight seemed to add another pebble to the stack of pebbles that represent collective anger. As soon as we had arrived at our hostel in Brugge, Belgium, made our beds, and connected to the wi-fi, I went straight to Snapchat, looking for fun geotags (and finding three!). A few hours later, I received a Facebook message from a friend who had watched my Snapchat story and previously been to Brugge: “YOU MUST GET HOT CHOCOLATE AND DESSERT AT THE OLD CHOCOLATE HOUSE.” I looked it up and found that the place was a mere four minute walk from our hostel. The only problem was that I read the message around 5 PM, did my research a little over half an hour later, and found that the place closed at 6 PM.

We decided to go the next day, for a nice breakfast before heading to Brussels. Our group consisted of seven, including me, and suffice it to say that not everyone was getting along swimmingly. Seven different personalities = countless opportunities for conflict. Nobody had completely exploded yet, but snappy comments had been made and the rain was not helping anyone’s mood. We planned on hitting up the flea market until 10, when the Old Chocolate House opened, but that idea was quickly discarded after five minutes in the wet cold. We ducked into a bakery to wait it out, where I discovered that I had not made screenshots of the directions like I thought. No wi-fi meant we had to walk all the way back to our hostel, look up directions, and finally set off. Though I felt on good terms with everyone, I was a little terrified to break the news. Nobody yelled at me. I relaxed slightly.

So here we were, walking towards the chocolatey wonderland that none of the locals we asked seemed to have heard of. The journey was taking far more than five minutes, and I led the way with ice in my veins and fear in my heart. And frustration in my brain! The city was truly the stuff of fairytales, but the mix of rain and a stressed-out travel group was putting a bit of a damper on my excitement. I had to resist the urge to blurt out my thoughts: “Guys, why can’t we all just be nice to each other?” There wasn’t much I could do about the rain, but the “Rain, rain, go away” song definitely bounced through my thoughts.

Finally, after stopping to ask for the name of the street, not the restaurant, we found it. The aroma that caressed my chilled nose reminded me of every variation of chocolate I had ever tried and more, melted together into one beautiful Willy Wonka-esque river, complete with tributaries and waterfalls, of course. It warmed me to the bone, but it did something else, too – the tension was erased. Disappeared. Gone. Everyone was happier than I’d seen them all weekend. The conversation flowed warmly as we joked about our pretentious waiter (“Speaking is the new wi-fi”), who was really concerned when we started ordering waffles – he wasn’t sure there’d be enough space. Our table was a relatively normal size, but when he brought the drinks we all understood: trays of chocolate cups, full of the chip mixture for each of our orders, which we then dropped into mugs that were about the size of my face and contained steaming milk and a whisk.

As we mixed and melted, so did our differences – clashing personalities suddenly found similarities they hadn’t previously known were there. Along with the rich darkness of the chocolate, I could taste the notes of raspberry and blueberry that the menu had promised, and everyone at the table had a similar experience with their own selection. We shared sips of cocoa, no one begrudging their mug, and heartily enjoyed our fancy waffles. For the first time, I could feel personal connections and friendly conversation budding like magnolia flowers in season (unfortunately, magnolia flowers don’t stay in bloom for long). The Old Chocolate House was a spiritual experience in more ways than one, and I think this whole sequence of events just goes to prove my personal philosophy: Chocolate fixes everything.

LivingKatja Vujic