Bus Ride to Bucharest (Part IV)

Note: Sorry this installment is a few days late. But it’s a longer one, to make up for it! The next installment should be up on time on Tuesday.

Chapter Four: Song for a Blue Guitar

Ginny’s first impression of Liège was one of soot. After the lush country-scape, crossing the river into the city was like walking from the Garden of Eden into 1880’s London. Decrepit factories with ashen smokestacks lined the waterfront. Years of dirt and labor filtered into the crevices, into the cobbles and stones, into the windowsills and into the gaps. Like a fine layer of soot, a feeling of dismay infiltrated Ginny’s very bones.

The city teemed with people, and it wasn’t long before Ginny lost sight of her fellow bus travelers. She wandered up and down the streets, taking left and right turns based on a whim as her only sense of direction. She was lost, anyway, what did it matter the direction in which she walked? She wound her way through wide boulevards and narrow alleyways. She walked past industrial buildings, churches with imposing facades, she found the river again and followed it until she collided into a wall of people.

Vendor stalls lined the river and between the stalls, a crush of shoppers pushed and bumped each other as they vied for wares. The ripe stench of aged cheeses and fresh sausages hung heavy over the Sunday market. Live birds of every color squawked from cages, flowers and ferns popped from florist stalls, and several stalls displayed wonderfully preserved antique books and furniture. Ginny vaguely sensed that if she were in any better mood this market would be a treasure trove to plunder. But today it was a bloody nuisance. She was exhausted from walking and carrying all her things for hours. All she wanted was a bed and space from all these crazy people, jabbering on in European tongues that to her now sounded like gibberish.

Finally, off to the side of the market, Ginny found a hotel. With a rush of relief, she nearly ran in to the concierge’s desk. But she soon discovered that there was no vacancy thanks to the crowd of tourists visiting the famous La Batte – the Sunday market from which she had just wandered. Oh yes, and also this week’s festival, the hotel receptionist mentioned pleasantly. The festival of course makes for a full hotel. Perhaps madame would like to try elsewhere?

Madame has no choice, does she, thought Ginny. She snatched her bags and bit off an ungrateful thank you to the receptionist and proceeded her search for a hotel. By the time Ginny got to her seventh hotel, she nearly collapsed in hysterical laughter at her situation. Like everything in this godforsaken city, the hotel looked dismal from the outside, but Ginny no longer cared. She just needed to find a bed.

When she walked into the hotel, she was a little overcome by the pastel interior, but so tired was she that she just pushed onward determined to get off her protesting feet. Pushing her sweaty, grimy hair off her face, Ginny asked the receptionist if there were any vacancies left. She would have prayed, except she was just plumb out of prayers by then. The receptionist moved slowly, but kept up a friendly stream of chatter. Ginny heard not a word of it. Until “Ah of course!” She looked up at that proclamation and found the lady behind the counter talking cheerfully about a vacancy they had. Something about a last-minute cancellation and they’d only just found out and Ginny didn’t care. “I’ll take it!” She cut off the lady mid-speech.

She was shown to her room, but still Ginny didn’t hear a word of any of it. Every cell of her being was metaphysically called towards the bed. She practically nodded and pushed the little matronly woman out the door, pulled shut the drapes and fell onto the bed. Without undressing or even taking off her shoes, Ginny tumbled into blessed, blessed sleep.

*                                    *                                    *

Waking was painful. Her head felt like one of the industrial buildings sat atop her shoulders. It spun a little as she sat up and it took a moment to register where she was. Slowly, Ginny rose and pulled open the drapes. It was the first moment she really saw Liège. White and grey clouds had rolled in to cover part of the horizon, and the heat and humidity in the evening sky created such a celestial palette of colors, it took her breath away. Ginny gasped and soaked in all the beautiful blues and golds, oranges and purples melting and swirling across the sky. The light danced off the Romanesque rooftops and bounced back into the clouds. I must be in a Van Gogh, she thought.

She turned around, and for the first time, really appreciated her room. It was simply appointed, but was lovely and feminine in sweet pastels. She went to the bathroom and found a bright, clean white-tiled washroom with a claw-footed tub. Glee bubbled up inside her. She ran the water and stripped down. A bath in such a romantic little tub was precisely what she needed. She pulled out her favorite scented oils and used almost the whole bottle of bubbles provided by the hotel. She soaked and luxuriated, feeling all the grime and frustration of the day slowly melt away.

After her bath, Ginny wrapped herself in a soft white towel and padded towards the sink. The mirror had fogged a little from the steam of the bath, but as the steam cleared, Ginny peered into her reflection. God, my eyes look so tired, she thought, looking at the dark circles forming like bruises under her thin skin. But a light flush from the heat blossomed over the rest of her and rosy little freckles came out to play on her shoulders. Ginny pinched her cheeks, but it was her hair that was her real best feature. Russet and gold, it was rich even when damp, and it already started to curl. She started to pull it tight into her usual twist, then cursed at herself and left it loose. She was too tired to care anymore. She would leave it as is.

A feeling of melancholy threatened as she thought briefly about what Michael would say about her leaving her hair down, but then she pushed the thought away. This trip is a chance to get away she reminded herself. Those problems would wait for her for when she got back. For now she just needed to focus on doing something for herself for once. She was here to have fun and let loose. Michael be damned.

First stop: food.

Ginny was starved, but found her mood was significantly lighter after having rested. She thanked the matronly lady behind the counter, who turned out to be the hotel’s owner. It was a family business and she was very proud of it. Ginny smiled at her and after some chatting, felt like she’d almost made a new friend in this city. But then her hunger called to her and so she asked where might be a good place to eat. The matron’s eyes opened wide and she clapped her hands. A long list of recommendations ensued until Ginny’s head spun. But the last suggestion caught her attention.

“And Amon Nanesse is fabulous!” said the matron. “You simply must try it. And have the pèkèt! You must try pèkèt. You cannot come to Liège and not try pèkèt.”

Ginny laughed and assured her she would try pèkèt, whatever it was. After getting directions, Ginny took off in the direction of Coeur Historique – the city’s center. Bicyclists passed her by and people waved and smiled to each other as they passed. She padded lightly over the cobblestone streets feeling the shift in energy as the city said good-bye to the day and prepared for the evening’s festivities. The closer she looked at the city, the more she realized that, beneath the city’s dismal industrial facade, a multitude of hidden treasures awaited.

She found Amon Nanesse without too much difficulty. As she walked into the pub-restaurant, she saw the hippie backpacker from the bus. He waved her over. She hesitated, but then was in too good of a mood to pass up the company. It had to be better than sitting alone, right?

He surprised her when he stood up politely as she sat down, but she kept her surprise to herself.

“Hey there, Red.” He looked at her appraisingly. “You look great. Your hair’s beautiful when it’s down like that.”

“Thanks.” Ginny couldn’t help smiling at the compliment. It sounded so genuine and still so easily given. She found those were the compliments she trusted the most.

“Did you have trouble finding a hotel?” she asked politely.

“No, surprisingly, I got one right off the bat.”

Of course you did, she thought. Everything seems to come easy to this man.

“Funny, huh? You’d think with all these tourists in town it’d be hard to find something.”

Ginny snorted. But she found herself laughing as she told him her tale of woe trying to find a hotel. “But I’ve been told I should try the pèkèt,” she said.

The backpacker raised an eyebrow and promptly ordered two. Pèkèt, it turned out, is Liège’s local-made liquor. “I’m Eric, by the way,” he said as he handed her a glass.

“Virginia. Ginny. Nice to meet you.” She clinked glasses with him and discovered that she actually felt it was nice to meet him. They began to chat and as she drank more of the liquor, she found their conversation began to flow more easily. Soon they were laughing and joking with the other patrons at the bar, who welcomed them and told them proudly of their Walloonian heritage. The people were hard workers, most of them had industrial jobs, and a sour economy had tightened the belts of all of them. But when Ginny asked about how they were faring under the strain, they laughed and waved their hands dismissively. “Po brêre on èst chal, po bêure!”  said one and the others laughed and nodded in agreement.

“What does that mean?” asked Eric.

Po brêre on èst chal, po bêure! We are not here to complain. We are here to eat!” growled a red-faced, portly ship merchant. The others laughed and cheered and clinked glasses. Ginny and Eric joined in the laughter. It was a worthy sentiment after all.

After several drinks and the prodding of their fellow bar-mates, Ginny and Eric wandered over to a different restaurant for dinner. By this time, Ginny’s head was spinning and she was so hungry she couldn’t see straight. But she was having the time of her life.

They arrived at the restaurant and gawked at the violet walls covered in black and white photos. They smirked and giggled drunkenly at each other as they were seated and placed their orders.

“Everything is soaked in beer!” exclaimed Ginny after perusing the menu.

“Well, if you can’t drink your alcohol, you must eat it I suppose,” said Eric primly, and they burst again into laughter.

“Seriously,” said Ginny, still giggling. “I’m not much of a drinker. I never have more than a glass of wine at a time.”

“Well to that, I always say: drink a glass at a time if you must, but do finish the bottle.”

The food came, and Ginny’s mouth watered over the savory rabbit braised in beer. The French fries were such a perfect state of salty and crisp, she didn’t hesitate to eat the whole mound. They shared a Chimay over dinner, and Ginny finally began to feel settled and soothed.

After dinner, they walked together along the river Meuse, and Eric took her hand into his. Her belly did a small flip in response; she enjoyed the feel of his warm, broad hand in hers.

She looked up at him, drinking in the sight of his dark beard. It was a contrast against his sunny, long blond hair, which he had tied back in a ponytail. He was so…granola. But he was tall and walked with such a masculine stride, she could not help but be attracted.

“So what do you do in the States?” she asked.

His response was cagey. “Oh a little of this and a little of that. Mostly, I just want to travel.”

“But what do you do for money? Even on a shoestring budget, travel is not inexpensive.”

“I just work for a little bit and then travel when I get bored of that.”

“All right, but then what do you do for work?”

“I’m thinking I want to bartend. I might do that next. You get to meet so many people and the hours could be fun.”

Ginny just shook her head. “Your life just sounds so free. I wish I could be like that. Unencumbered by money concerns.”

He raised an eyebrow at her. “You don’t look like you have money concerns,” he said.

Maybe compared to you, she thought, but bit back the meanness in her. “Well, I’ve worked hard for what I’ve got.”

“No doubt. Don’t get defensive; I just meant to say you dress well.”

“In that case, thank you,” she said. She was in too good of a mood to really get upset.

As they neared her hotel, they made plans to meet up the next morning. “Tomorrow’s festival sounds like it will be a lot of fun,” said Eric.

“Yeah, all right,” agreed Ginny. They walked up to the hotel door and Eric tugged on her hand to pull her around to face him. Heat flashed up between them and Ginny tingled with anticipation.

His blue eyes were kind as he looked down at her, but the feelings tumbling inside her were anything but kind. She wanted to run, but her body refused to do anything but stay. Do not get in bed with this man! screamed her brain, and then, all thought disappeared completely. He studied her for a moment. The friendliness in his eyes melted away to something darker, more serious. The smile disappeared from Ginny’s face and she could not tear her eyes from his.

Slowly, he lowered his lips to hers. He pressed his lip against hers, softly at first. Testing, teasing, tasting. Then he went deeper. He sunk into her and she took him in, gladly, until they were both out of breath.

He smiled and pressed his lips tenderly on her forehead. “Goodnight,” he whispered, then let go of her, turned and walked away.

Oh God, she thought, as she stood weak-kneed in the street. You’re in so much trouble.

(to be continued…)

Bus Ride to Bucharest, Part I here.

Bus Ride to Bucharest, Part II here.

Bus Ride to Bucharest, Part III here.

Bus Ride to Bucharest, Part V here.

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