Friday, March 21, 2014

Table for One

I’ll never forget the day I booked a table for one.  My inspiration, my sister.  One night over a glass of wine she confessed how tired she was. Working full time as a teacher while raising three young kids zapped her energy. In a low voice, as if admitting guilt, she whispered, “I fantasize about checking into a hotel room for one night, alone.” Having four kids myself, my sister didn’t need to explain her guilty desire to be locked away in the quiet comforts of a room, alone.  My mind raced to a scene in the movie Date Night (starring Tina Fey and Steve Carell).  Tina Feys character, in a moment of exhaustion seemed to verbally express what so many parents feel at the end of the day, or at least what my sister and I felt...

 “I fantasize about being alone.  There are times when, on my worst day, I’ve thought about just leaving our house and going someplace quiet, like checking into a hotel.  Checking into a room all by myself, in a quiet, air conditioned room, sitting down, eating my lunch, with no one touching me-drinking a diet Sprite, by myself. Every day I get up, make breakfast, go to work, come home clean the house, pick up the kids, take them to soccer, pick them up from soccer, cook dinner, clean up, give the kids a bath and get them into their pajamas which is a fight every night—it’s a BIG SURPRISE to everyone every night that they have to wear pajamas!—and then after I have washed everybody else’s food and boogers off of me, I use whatever energy I have left to physically put myself into bed…”. 

Like chiming church bells, those words along with my sister's rang loudly through my brain. Putting guilt aside, I mustered up the courage to ask my husband to gift me one night alone in a hotel room. We’ve been married 17 years.  Gasp! As soon as I asked , I could feel the bitterness of guilt gurgling inside me.  What was I thinking?  It was too late; the words had already left my reluctant mouth.  To my surprise, my husband was not only understanding, but supportive.  It turns out I’m not exactly a silent sufferer, he knew it had been a long summer entertaining our four energized girls.  Without questioning why I needed a break, he said two words, “Book it”.

I knew exactly where I wanted to spend my gifted night alone, Brussels.  It’s an easy 35 minute train ride from where we live. The goal was to find a hotel that whispered urban sanctuary and was easy walking distance to the Grand Place and Central Train Station.  I wanted the security of being within a short stroll to museums and sites.  Finding a place that catered to my vision wasn’t an easy task.  Brussels is geared, rightfully so, to the business traveler.  Most of the hotels I found seemed to scream corporate, not soothing.  Upon lots of Goggling, I found my 24 hour retreat.  Without a second thought, I booked it!

Hotel Le Dixseptième.  This lovely boutique property consists of 24 rooms and suites.  At one time it was the Spanish ambassador’s residence.  It sits quietly on a tree lined street outside the Central Train Station.  The neighborhood is home to numerous art galleries and antique shops.  Perfect!  Upon entering the hotel I was greeted with a warm smile by the hotel’s receptionist, Josephine.  Josephine was courteous, professional, and accommodating.   She was a great first impression. With my room key in hand, I headed up the beautiful 17th century oak staircase. Opening the door was a breath of fresh air.  The colors were cool, calm, and serene. Shades of grey, cream, white, with subtle splashes of lavender were easy on my tired eyes.  My nest for the night was refreshing and quiet.  I was beginning to feel a sense of relaxation.  If it weren’t that I had called a head for a dinner reservation, I could easily see myself slipping into the plush white robe and black L.D. monogramed slippers waiting beside the bed, but I had a table for one waiting.

The restaurant I chose, La Roue D’Or (The Wheel of Gold).   It sits off an artery road from the Grand Place.  Entering is a feast for the eyes.  The ceilings are painted sea foam green with drifting puffy white clouds.  The chandeliers add a touch of grandeur and offer a nice contrast to the dark wood.  If you’re a fan of the surrealist painter Magritte, you will be in heaven.  The entire restaurant is filled with touches of whimsy.  Behind the bar you’ll find paintings of numerous men in bowler hats with striking blue eyes peering over a ledge.  They seem playful and taunting.  The visual feast continued as my meal arrived.  The fish soup I ordered was accompanied with homemade butter toasted croutons made from French bread.   The broth was think, rich, and filled with clams and tender white fish.  Crumbling the buttery croutons into the soup was comfort in a bowl, whimsically delicious!  With a smile on my face and a full belly, I strolled back to my quiet oasis.  I nestled in with a great book, before falling asleep.

The next morning I splurged on room service.  It was well worth a few extra euros to have coffee and fresh bread delivered to the room.  Breakfast was included in the room rate, but that would mean I needed to get dressed and head down to the dining room.  I really wanted the luxury of having time to enjoy my robe and slippers before having to leave them behind.  As I sat reading my newspaper, enjoying my hot cup of coffee with frothy steamed milk, all I could think was how wonderful it all felt.  There was no more guilt, just simple pleasure.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

A Taste of Mons

Spring is in the air.  I can smell her sweet fragrant flowers and hear her winged companions serenading melodies through my doorway.  The pale shades of grey that accompany winter are being replaced with vibrant colors competing for attention. Everything is blossoming, including Mons, Belgium!

On a recent family outing to downtown Mons, I was showered with rose petals that fell from the sky, as our family accidentally walked into a Moroccan wedding procession.  On the steps outside the Hotel de Ville we witnessed a bride, groom, their family and friends break into a lively celebration dance.  We were enchanted by the exotic music and merriment.  We could have easily continued to ride the coat tails of this happy event, but our stomach rumbles rivaled those of the Moroccan drums.   We were there to eat!

 Over the Christmas break our family found ourselves cold and hungry while roaming around the back streets of Mons.  As we headed back up a side street from the Grand Place, there was a narrow alley with a soft glow from a window.  Over the door was a sign, Le Tivoli.  As we opened the door, we were greeted by the warmth of the pizza ovens and the smell of rising dough.  The bar is the focal point, not because of liquid libations, but because of the two pizza ovens. The space feels like a familiar friend’s dining room. We quickly made ourselves at home and ordered a carafe of house red wine and soft drinks for our girls.  To my delight, I watched a woman roll up her sleeves and begin rolling our pizza dough.  After adding our toppings, they were quickly popped into the oven.  Mere minutes later they’re done and ready to be consumed. And to our delight our pizzas were delivered to our table with a genuine smile, were just as delicious as the aroma drifting overhead, and when the bill came I think I heard my wallet say thank you.  

Now, for a little sweet talk.  If you’re looking to bribe the kids to behave or possibly reward yourself for all the money you saved eating at Le Tivoli, I have a candy shop I would like to introduce you to. Our girls know a visit to Mons isn’t complete unless they fill up a few coned shaped bags with sweets from Le Bonbon Frivole.  What the store lacks in chocolate, they make up for in their rainbow assortment of sugar coated goodness.  This place is especially rewarding on a rainy day (The colors inside practically spill onto the streets), as it exudes one word, happy.

Whether you’re in Mons morning, noon, or early evening, you should know there is a place to refuel your energy in the form of coffee. Le Pain Quotidien (The Daily Bread).  Walking in your nose is greeted by the aroma of fresh roasted coffee and banquettes.  Dare I say, it feels like a Parisian café!  Beautiful pastries are waiting behind sparkling glass cases.  Behind the pastries you’ll find a wall lined with multiple shelves of fresh baked bread and apron clad employees.  Truly, this place deserves to be noticed, one of the few cafes I’ve found where you can either sit and sip for hours or grab a coffee and pastry to go.  It’s not unusual to see tortoise rimmed spectacles peering behind newspapers, writers typing behind their laptops, or university students taking a break from class.  This place exudes rustic charm.  And it just so happens they have really good coffee too!