“I’m a control freak,” Andrea said, “and I like to walk fast.”
It was a fair enough warning. The four of us had taken the train from Antwerp to Ghent for the day. We’d trooped after her, she with a map in hand and a plan in mind, through the streets of Ghent on a scavenger hunt, seeking out the highlights of the historic city: the ornate Gothic cathedral, the ornate Gothic government buildings that looked like cathedrals, more Gothic churches, the Castle, the canals.
But by two ’o clock, we were all a little grumpy. We were tired, and lunch had been a disappointment. Now we were just trying to be polite.
Then we passed the café. It was on the other side of the street, nearly lost in the shadow of the (ornate Gothic) town hall. We crossed the cobblestones and ducked between parked cars and walked up to the window that said Huize Colette. We peeked in the window. We peeked in the door. We walked inside to look at the menu written in chalk on the wall behind the counter.
“What do you think?” someone said.
“Do they have hot chocolate?” someone else said.
We asked the round young woman behind the counter if she had hot chocolate.
“Do you want milk, half milk, or very dark?” she asked in fair Flemish English.
We looked at each other. We had no idea what to say. We’d never been given a chocolate choice before. The woman smiled at our confusion and gently suggested we take a seat; she’d be right over.
We were like kids, bouncing and giggling and ogling the chocolate torte tempting us on the counter. We did as we were told, and when the young woman—she owned the shop—came to take our orders, she explained the difference between milk (the usual milk chocolate), half milk (semisweet dark chocolate), and very dark (that 85% cacao you can only get in specialty stores in the U.S.).
“You can also get very dark as ‘wake up call,’” she said. “With espresso.”
My eyes lit up. “Is it very bitter?” I asked.
The woman smiled sweetly and nodded.
“Do people add sugar?” I asked.
“We can give to you,” she said.
So my compatriots ordered milk, and I ordered a wakeup call. (What else?!)
“What about the torte?” someone said.
“Should we?” someone hemmed.
“What do you think?” someone else hawed.
“We’ll have one to share,” I said.
The hot chocolate came in fat mugs on silver trays, and the chocolate torte came with a dollop of whipped cream and four forks. From the very first sip we were all in heaven. We couldn’t stop oohing and ahhing. My wakeup call took my breath away—I never did add the sugar. And the chocolate torte disappeared—just disappeared.
We floated out of Huize Colette on a high that had nothing to do with caffeine. Somehow our grumpies were gone, washed away by the best hot chocolate any of us had ever tasted.
But something else had evaporated into the sweet-smelling air of that delightful little café, too. We continued on our tourists’ quest, but somehow the fun we were having together—our joking banter, the pictures we snapped of each other, the scent of flowers along the way—was more important than laying eyes on every numbered icon on the map. And by the end of the day when we melted into chairs on a restaurant piazza near the canal, a bottle of wine between us, the sun setting into clouds of beautiful colors beyond the Castle, we all just sighed. This was what we’d remember the most about this trek to the city of Ghent.
(c) 2012 Linda J. Kobert