It’s late, but not late enough for bed. The hotel bar is closed, and the porter has helpfully directed us to a bar 'down there on the right'. The bar is small, dark, smoky, and filled with live music that people are cheering loudly. There is an unusually high incidence of black and white stripey tops and a bicycle just inside the door. The walls are panelled in carved wood, and posters are tacked into the panels. Magazines are propped along the ledge around the top of the room. The bar seems realer than anywhere else we've visited during the evening, and its realness makes it daunting. When we walked past it earlier I looked inside and wished that we could go in.
As I enter heads swivel towards us. I turn around and edge back to the group standing uneasily just outside the door. "Aren't we going in, then?" Trouble asks. "Well, yes" I reply, "only I went in and none of you came with me."
There is one of those committee moments when everyone looks at everyone else and tries to work out what they want to do. Do you want to go in? Do I? Will someone else make a move? Eventually someone does and we make it three feet into the bar, where we stand nervously by the ugly formica tables. Someone is going to have to go to the bar. It's not crowded, but the people sitting around it are packed close together, chatting. The bar looks impenetrable. If it were in London I'd march up and shoulder my way through the crowd, smile at the barman, get served. It isn't in London. I am hoping that someone else will go to the bar.
There is a flurry behind me and suddenly I have been handed several euro notes. I have a note in each hand, and I am getting a list of requests. Coffee. Decaf. Hot chocolate. Wine. I have a hand full of foreign money and a head full of list. It is too much information all at once, so I panic and have a little moment. "I can't do this!" I say, and try very hard to hand back the money. One of the notes remains in my hand. This is not unlike the time when I became hockey captain by default at secondary school. I've got the job because no one else wants it and I am no good at saying no. It has nothing to do with my qualifications. Bugger.
"I'll come with you" Trouble says, and smiles encouragingly. I am stuffed. I have to go to the bar. I walk up, shoulder my way through, and smile at the barman. I order in French, and when I get to the third thing on the list he gestures for me to stop
“You can order in English, this is a Flemish bar,” says a man sitting on the bar stool next to me. He is wearing a straw pork-pie hat, rolling a cigarette, and looks like Tom Waits. “He’d probably prefer Spanish, though,” he adds.
While the barman fumbles with the coffee machine we discuss the cultural incorrectness of my list, and the experience of being a tourist in a strange city when you don’t know any of the rules. I am apologetic, embarrassed. “Do you live here?” he asks. I shake my head. “Then how would you know?” he smiles.
I feel at home, and smile back.