On the last day of our 2010 Belgian trip, my friend R___, whose last name can either mean “fisherman” or “sin,” depending on how you mispronounce it, took us in his Fiat for a tour of the Belgian countryside.  I had told him that we wanted to see places lesser-traveled by tourists, and he suggested the medieval cities of Huy, Dinant, and Namur.  Great, I said.  We can find some lunch along the way.

After Huy, along the Chaussée de Dinant, we stopped at a farmhouse restaurant beside a brook.  As we enjoyed the sunshine, sipping tea, nibbling Speculoos, and watching the chickens wandered the grounds, the waitress informed us that we had arrived at their nether-time:  too late for breakfast, too early for lunch.  We could wait around for another hour if we wanted, but we decided to push on.  R___ said he knew a place in Dinant.

We reached Dinant in the full force of the afternoon.  The sun glinting off the River Meuse competed with the Casino de Dinant for the title of Brightest, Gaudiest, the Most Neonic.  The restaurant R___ had chosen was in a prime location:  our backs to the cliffs, tower of Notre-Dame to our left, the river before us.  And, in keeping with Walloonian Catholic tradition, it was closed on Sundays.  Matthew bought a couque de Dinant in the shape of a pig, but R___ advised against biting into it.  “Not unless you want to break your teeth,” he said.

In Namur, R___ drove us to the Citadel, at the top of a hill.  Other tourists, mostly Belgians, had lined their chairs alongside the edge of the stone wall for a view over the city.  On the tables next to them, plates of food.  It was just after five, and the river cut through Namur like a sickle.  R___ flagged down our waiter came and had an animated conversation with him.  The waiter turned to us, apologetic, and shrugged.

“If you learn any French today,” R___ said, ruefully, “it will be the phrase, Desolée, la cuisine est fermée.”

The waiter brought a condolence plate of cheese and celery salt.  And a few packets of Speculoos.

Taking the E411 back towards our hotel, the countryside browning in the fading sunlight, we could have been the titular bourgeoisie from Buñuel’s film, hungry, following an endless highway towards an unknown destination.

We stopped in Wavre, a suburb southeast of Brussels.  Outside a take-out shop, people congregated in line and around the picnic benches to the right of the shop.  “OK,” R___ said, “this place must be open.”  The other customers seemed bemused by our presence:  What are they doing here? people asked R___, as if their suburban lives were far removed from the tourist trade.  In a way, this was exactly what I had asked R___ for.  Almost everyone ordered frîtes; most of the menu board was devoted by the various frîtes sauces.  I chose one that seemed most unfamiliar—merguez—and as we settled into the warm evening with our paper boats of fries, we finally did something new and heretofore unexplored:  we began to eat.