I HAD arranged to travel from London to Ostend upon a cargo-boat, because the fare was only four shillings, or one dollar, and this was much cheaper than the rate via Dover and the express steamers. The vessel was hardly constructed for passenger service, and there were only about a dozen berths, in all, so that when these were full the other passengers had to sleep on deck, or sit up all night. I talked with the steward, and he said that if I didn’t want to sit up I could sleep on the table in the dining-saloon. I accepted this offer, and lay down on one of the hardest pieces of wood I had ever seen. I was in danger of falling to the floor almost any minute, and I felt sure that when we left the river for the English Channel I would find myself in that predicament. But I had been through with a hard day in London and a tired boy can sleep almost anywhere, so the night was not so bad after all.
Misery of a London Fog
When I opened my eyes in the morning, and looked at my watch, I saw that it was six o’clock. We were due at Ostend at eight, and I thought that by this time we must be within sight of land. When I reached the deck, however, I found that I could hardly see six feet ahead of me, and realized that we were experiencing one of the famous London fogs. I asked one of the officers whether we would reach Ostend on time, and was informed that we had not yet left the Thames, and would be in the river for some time to come, judging by the appearance of the fog. This was a considerable disappointment. I had brought along nothing to eat, and I wasn’t sure that there would be any meals served on board. I was hungry already, and likely to be ravenous before we reached the Belgian shore. It was impossible to remain on deck, so I returned to the dining-room table. As I lay there, trying to sleep, I could hear the steady din of the fog-horns on every side of us. Evidently there were many other vessels fog-bound in the neighborhood, and it was a perilous situation. There would certainly be collisions if any ship tried to make the Channel in such a fog.
It was twelve o’clock before the mist began to disappear, and we were unable to continue our journey until two o’clock. Then, when the fog had gone, we could see dozens of vessels on every side, bound in and out, and the sight impressed me with the immense commerce of the Port of London. We accompanied the others down the river, and toward evening we were in the English Channel, steaming toward Ostend as rapidly as possible. The water was far from smooth, but I was fortunate in escaping another attack of seasickness. I looked for the most elevated spot amidships, and sat there without moving about. I ate nothing all day long, except some biscuits which were given me by one of the passengers, and I was glad, indeed, when the lights of Ostend came within view at last. It was about ten o’clock, then, and midnight before I finally landed at the pier.
In a Queer Predicament
Once arrived on Belgian soil, I found myself in a rather unpleasant position. I could speak no words of French or Flemish, and I didn’t know where I was to find a bed. There were large hotels, of course, where my English would be understood, but I wanted to find a cheaper lodging, if possible. It occurred to me that by walking through the streets I might find some householder who would be willing to take me in, so after leaving the pier, I started off briskly in the direction of the lighted thoroughfares. My fear was that all the people would be in bed at this hour of the night; and anyhow, they would think it suspicious that a boy of my age should be wandering about alone at twelve o’clock. I had on my back a small knapsack which I had purchased in London, containing the clothing and other necessities I had brought with me. No doubt my appearance was peculiar, and I shouldn’t have been surprised when pedestrians stopped to stare at me. There were a considerable number in the streets, and in a public square a band was playing, so I decided that this must have been a holiday of some sort.
I couldn’t help feeling a little homesick as I walked through the narrow, dark streets of this foreign city. I didn’t meet any one who looked at all friendly, and it wasn’t pleasant to be without a bed, and I thought a great deal of the home I had been so anxious to leave a few months before. Yet I didn’t wish to be anywhere else than in Belgium, for I knew that my real European tour was just beginning, and that some of my most interesting experiences were ahead of me. But I was certainly very tired, and when at last I came to a pleasant-looking old lady, who was seated in the doorway of her house, I determined to ask her to take me in for the night.
A Pantomimic Conversation
It was a puzzling question, how to make her understand, what I wanted, but I was equal to the occasion. I rubbed my eyes vigorously with my fists, laid my head on my arm, and went through all sorts of motions intended to convey the knowledge that I was sleepy and wanted a bed. The old lady was slow to comprehend, and actually looked frightened. I then decided to attempt some French, and said, ” Un Americaine,” pointing to myself. This she seemed to understand, and, rising from her seat, she hurried into the house. In a few moments she returned with a pencil and a piece of paper, on which she wrote the price she would charge for lodging. As it was very little, I readily accepted ; I would have accepted at almost any price, for I was tired enough to have slept in the street. The old lady lit a candle, and took me up two flights of steep and narrow stairs to one of the queerest old rooms I had ever been in. Its ceiling was very low, and calcimined a brilliant blue. There was a small window, with tiny panes of glass, and a rough, uneven floor, scrubbed until it was fairly white. I thought that I was indeed a stranger in a strange land. The furniture was of a sort I had never seen before. The bed was so high from the floor that I wondered how I would ever get in it. When I stood beside it I could look over the edge, but it would be impossible, I knew, to climb into such a bed in my usual fashion. When I undressed, and wanted to retire, I simply took a run and a jump and landed on the feather tick, head foremost. It proved to be an excellent bed in which to sleep, in spite of its peculiarities, and I was glad to find that there was at least one good thing in Belgium. The old woman came up with her candle to see if everything was all right, and the last thing I heard was the noise of her heavy shoes as she went downstairs again.
First Morning in a Strange Land
When I awoke the next morning to my first day in a strange land, I found awaiting me in the old woman’s kitchen a steaming cup of black coffee, and some hot rolls to eat with it. It tasted better than anything I had eaten for several days, for I was ravenously hungry. The coffee would have been improved if I had had some hot milk to mix with it, but as I didn’t know the word milk in French I had to go without, as I was unwilling to try to make the old woman understand by means of signs. During my tour of the Continent I became well-accustomed to dine without things I couldn’t ask for, and developed into a person easily satisfied. After a few weeks I was able to get along very well with my pantomines, and in Germany I found many people who could speak English, but in Belgium I was necessarily self-denying.
When I had finished my light breakfast, I made my way to the famous Ostend beach. It is a favorite European resort, and one of the finest bathing-places to be found anywhere. The great hotels extend along the water-front in a seemingly endless array, and even at the early hour of my visit the promenade was gay with fashionable folk. After I had seen the beach, T took a walk through the town, and found the contrast rather bewildering. For while the casino and the hotels give the promenade an extremely modern appearance, the older part of Ostend retains many of its ancient characteristics. It was interesting to see the buildings of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, after I had enjoyed the up-to-date pleasure of the bathing beach.
I naturally felt queer at being in a place where no English was spoken. It was my first experience in a truly foreign country, and it was some time before I became accustomed to the chattering of French all about me. I purchased a French and English vocabulary, and made several attempts to pronounce some of the most common words in the foreign language; but my effort was fruitless. The Belgians only looked at me in wonderment, as if I were a curiosity. I determined to persevere, however, because I knew the only way to learn would be to keep on trying until they recognized my meaning.
A Poor Pedestrian
One day was sufficient for me to accomplish all I cared to do in Ostend, and I decided to start for the capital of Belgium on the second morning. I had purchased a map of the country, and it seemed to me that it ought to be a comparatively easy matter to go to Brussels from Ostend on foot. I had often read of persons who had made pedestrian tours on the Continent, and in planning my trip I had decided that this was the thing for me to do. I knew that it would be cheaper to walk than to travel by rail, and I knew, also, that I would see more of the people and their manner of life than if I hurried from one large city to another by express train. I felt, too, that I was almost independent of the hotels. I had in my knapsack the little coffee-pot and the alcohol lamp which I had used in my Chicago light-housekeeping, and with these utensils I could always make my own coffee in the morning. My other meals I could buy wherever I happened to be, and at night I could probably find a bed of some sort, wherever I might find myself at dark.
From Ostend my first objective point was the ancient city of Bruges, and I started along the fine old public highway at about five o’clock in the morning. I’m sure I presented a strange picture as I trudged along, my knapsack and over-coat over my shoulder, and a heavy staff in my hand. I hadn’t walked far until I decided to take off my shoes and stockings ; the temptation to go barefooted was more than I could resist. It was so long since I had walked in my bare feet, and the road was so smooth and hard, that I ignored conventionalities. The majority of the peasants whom I met were barefooted, and my appearance attracted no special attention on that account.
A Main-traveled Road
The highway was a much-traveled one, being one of the principal public thoroughfares of the kingdom, and there was no lack of company as I went along. I was never out of sight of some farmhouse, and usually I could see a village, for Belgium is thickly settled. I was delighted with what I saw of the queer old cabins, the quaintly-costumed people, and the picturesque country hamlets. The country was mostly flat and well-cultivated. In many of the fields I saw women at work, harvesting the grain, and I was shocked at such an unusual spectacle. I had never heard that women worked in the fields of Europe, and it was hard for me to believe that the custom is so general as I found it to be. The men, too, seemed always busy, and everyone in Belgium seemed very industrious at some kind of work. Nearly everything I saw was new and strange to my young mind, and the days were almost as interesting as if I had been in Central Asia instead of in Central Europe. The farms were invariably small, and the farmers had to work very hard to earn a sufficient income from so little land.
I hadn’t covered many miles on the first day before my feet began to hurt me, notwithstanding that I had covered many miles on foot while I was in England and Scotland. I began to think that it wouldn’t be so easy, after all, to go through the Continent as a pedestrian, and there were times when I could hardly resist the desire to find a railway station and board a train. But in spite of the blisters, I continued on my way, and soon I grew thoroughly accustomed to walking about twenty miles each day. I had no particular reason for hurrying. If I liked a town I was free to remain in it as long as I wished, and if I found a district uninteresting, I merely pushed on toward Brussels as rapidly as I comfortably could travel.
Beware of the Dogs
There were few unusual incidents on the way to Bruges. I had one experience, however, which might have resulted seriously, and certainly it taught me to beware of dogs. Toward evening I was passing through a tiny hamlet on the very outskirts of the city, when I stopped at a house to ask for a drink of water. I had no sooner entered the dooryard than two great dogs came leaping round the corner, and before I knew’ it they were upon me. As quick as thought I dropped my knapsack and did my best to defend myself with my staff. I was making but poor progress, when the door opened and their mistress called them off. She explained that she had supposed the dogs were tied up, else she would have warned me not to enter. I had a good fright, and after that I looked about me carefully before I. entered strange dooryards.
Most of the dogs with which I came in contact were of a very docile sort. As everyone knows, the dogs of Flanders are quite different from the ones we have in America, for they are obliged to haul vehicles to pay for their living. It was a common sight, as I walked along, to see a milk or vegetable cart drawn by some faithful canine, and I can imagine that such dogs are greatly prized by the farmers. While they hardly take the place of a horse, they must be extremely useful about a farm.
I entered Bruges just before nightfall, and set about hunting a place to sleep. After some difficulties in making people understand what I wanted, I found a bed at a reasonable price in a modest inn, and I also found a “creamerie” where I could get my food at a low rate. After walking all day there was no difficulty about going to sleep, and I awoke the next morning greatly refreshed, and ready for a day’s sightseeing in the old city.
Poor Old Bruges !
The first place I visited was the ” Belfry Tower of Bruges,” of which I had read in Longfellow’s beautiful poem. I found it in the market-place, just as the poet described it, very picturesque and interesting in appearance. From the tower I went to the gaudy cathedral, where I rested for a time, and after that there was the canal and other places to visit. I purchased a guide-book, in which I read that Bruges had once been the most prosperous city of Western Europe, with a vast commerce, and many flourishing industries. It was hard to believe that the quiet, almost deserted streets were ever the arteries of business, and it was evident that Bruges had experienced a remarkable decline. At the time of my visit it seemed that most of the people in the street were beggars, and it was told me that practically half the entire population were paupers and unable to make a living. I thought again of our prosperous American towns and cities ; certainly it isn’t surprising that we have so many European immigrants.
I found it necessary to take many meals in the little ” creameries ” while I was in Bruges, and I learned a good deal through experience. I found, for instance, that meat was apt to be very expensive, and that I had better do with-out it as much as possible. During my first day in the city I asked a waitress to bring me some roast beef, after I had practiced saying the word in French, so that she would be sure to understand me. I was presented with a piece of meat about three inches square, for which I had to pay a franc, or twenty cents. I also had to pay for bread and potatoes, so that before I was through I had eaten what seemed to me a very expensive meal. I had been trying to keep my expenses down to about thirty cents per day, and here I had paid out that much for a single meal. But I learned through experience, and in the end I was able to keep my expenses down to a very satisfactory point. I didn’t always have all that I wanted to eat, and the food was often of poor quality ; but I was quite willing to economize in any way possible, so long as I could remain that much longer in Europe. Every day I saw something new and interesting, and every day I was more glad that I had undertaken the trip.
From Bruges to Ghent
From Bruges I walked to Ghent, which was on the direct road to Brussels. My knapsack, which had seemed too heavy during the first days, was lightened by the removal of some superfluous articles of clothing, and was now much easier to carry. The road to Ghent was even more interesting than the one to Bruges. The tiny villages were more frequent, and there were more people traveling in the road. I was always curious to observe the attire of the peasants, for it was hardly the same with any two people. They appeared in public in all sorts of strange costumes, composed of the colors of the rainbow, and cut without any idea of form. Probably the poor folk have other more important things to think about than dress.
I remained two days in Ghent, visiting the important places of interest. I found many curious things which would have been too commonplace to be noticed by older travelers, as practically everything was new to me. I had no comprehensive guide-book from which to form my opinions of things, and depended upon my own taste to guide me. I am sure that I will never again enjoy any journey so much as I did that walking tour through Belgium, for I will never again have the enthusiastic appreciation which belongs to the age of sixteen.