Monday, February 11, 2008

Getting Scammed in Brugge

The stars came into alignment and I was able bring my wife along with me while I attended a series of HAZOP meetings in Amsterdam. The plan was to take a week of vacation after the HAZOP and drive down to France. I had an outstanding promise to take her to Monet's gardens and this was going to be the opportunity to make good on it.

We had been urged by friends to stop and see Brugge, so armed with maps and driving directions from Michelin, we set out for Brugge. Our car was an Opel Signum (2.2 liter). It’s Opel’s version of a station wagon and while it’s comfortable, it’s a bit underpowered. At times it made me yearn for my Dodge V8 – until I hit the gas stations. And the “NL” on the license plate advertised to all that we are Dutch. This would later prove useful as it was a built in excuse for driving mistakes.

I didn’t get lost until we neared Brugge and I didn’t really get lost until we entered the town. Brugge is a medieval town ringed by a moat. Once inside the ring road, you are confronted with narrow cobblestone one way streets. I knew that the hotel was near the town center, so my plan was to head for the town center and look for a sign. But somehow, you just couldn’t get to where you wanted to go. There was always a one way street preventing you from heading in the direction you want to go. But wait, I had upgraded my cell phone to work in Europe. I’ll call the hotel and ask directions. And so I did, but the hotel staff was no help. They apparently knew as much about the city as I did. After about the third time driving around the same loop, an old man on a bicycle rode up to us and asked if we spoke English. (My wife claims he saw a big, fair haired guy with Netherlands plates and because he was Belgian, refused to speak Dutch and therefore wanted to converse only in English - or Flemish) We told him we were Americans and we were looking for the Crowne Plaza. “Follow me”, he says, and off we go following a 75 year old man on a bicycle. Within 3 minutes he had us in front of the hotel. He pulls up next to me and asks, “Do you have any American money for me?” Not wanting to seem cheap and relieved that we were at the hotel so easily, I peeled of a $20 bill and thought it well worth the money. I later decided that this guy had developed a very nice scheme to supplement his retirement income. Find lost tourists and guide them to their destination for a gratuity. After all, I had paid him the equivalent of $400/hr, tax free. I became convinced of it when I observed other old men offering directions to lost tourists. You gotta love the Belgians!

So we spent the afternoon touring Brugge. We ate lunch on the town square and a took horse and buggy ride. Dinner was a bowl of steamed mussels on the same town square. The friends who recommended Brugge were not wrong. It is a lovely town and perfect for a relaxing weekend break. Unfortunately we had to get underway the next day for France and Giverny.

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