de noordzee & belgian fries

words & images anna weber

"Should we start in De Panne to get to Dunkirk?"

"Do we want to take the train all the way to De Panne and have to make a transfer, or should we take a faster train to Ostend and bike from there?"

"That would be way too far. Look at the map, do you realize how far that is? You know what we can do though—there's a tram that we can take from Ostend to De Panne. It goes along the entire Belgian coast of the North Sea."

"Is the point to see Dunkirk or to go for a bike ride? Because we could just take a train to Dunkirk."

"Neither. The point is to go on an adventure. Doesn't biking across an international border through the Flemish dunes sound like an adventure?"

Our adventure ended up taking the whole day. Casey and I, two Americans who were spending a year falling in love with Belgium, cut class at our university in Brussels, taking a 6 AM train from Brussels-Central to the coast. We wanted to rent our bikes as soon as the store in De Panne opened. It was early in the morning and early in the season for North Sea tourism—nothing in Ostend was open. The metal shutters of summer rentals were pulled firmly shut, the grates in front of stores and restaurants locked. A few early commuters lounged at tram and bus stops, perusing their papers and checking their watches. The strong breeze was steeped in the smell of salt and fish. Born on Long Island, I huffed it eagerly.

The architecture seemed bizarre to me, for Flanders—none of the Dutch or crow-stepped gables typical of Ghent or Brugges. The facades were more ornate, the buildings carried more gilding, statues and monuments curved out of corners and roofs. We learned later that Leopold II built up Ostend to be a major beach resort on the North Sea.

We were the only ones in our car on the long tram ride to De Panne. Casey checked the trail map on his phone and called the bike rental in De Panne, double-checking their hours, speaking in Flemish. We snacked on the crushed croissants and couques au chocolat we'd bought in the Brussels train station. I downed the last of my lukewarm coffee, watching water the color of molten steel flit by the window. The dull sky was low and the tide was low, exposing the short stone jetties jutting out from the sand.

It wasn't hard to figure out where to go, once we got the bikes and started pedaling down the street. The store owner gave us good directions, and the path was clearly marked as it crisscrossed streets and crosswalks, finally leading us down to the dunes. As soon as the tires hit sand, they stopped short, the center of the handlebars smacking me hard in the sternum. "Case, I think we're walking it from here."

It took us hours to trek over the dune park, trying to find our way back down to the beach where we hoped the sand would be firmer, better for biking. Some parts of the paths were planked over, some were made of dirt, and some were made of thick drifts of silky sand, spilling into my Keds, sneaking into my socks. Following the trail, we ducked in and out of groves of short trees, covered with vines and slimy with moss. Sea grass sprung up in tufts along the ridges of the dunes.

Every now and then, our route came to a crest higher than the others, and we were afforded a sweeping vista and a moment to get our bearings. High-rises popped up along the horizon to the south, and the sea stretched out in a fat silver line to the north. In between lay a rippling ocean of sage-green grass and sand. "Look, there's the beach! Come on, let's go this way, maybe it'll be a shortcut." Usually, it wasn't.

As soon as we made it down to the water, where the sand was harder, and began to pedal at a good clip toward France, we realized we'd be pedaling into the wind the entire way. Tears from the gusts streamed down my face as I tried to strike a rhythm. Ahead of us, a few horses and their riders cantered along the surf, ducking in and out of the water, spray flying up behind their hooves. Alongside us, buried in the sand, were old Nazi bunkers from World War II. Several were broken in half or into several pieces. Most were covered in graffiti. One tag read "ANARCHIE."

"Are you hungry? Should we stop for lunch? I think we're probably almost there, no?" We were not almost there. At the pace we were going, we weren't even close. We had just barely crossed the border into Bray-Dunes, a ghost-town of a seaside resort, where a small fritkot was open.

 "What do you even call a fritkot in France?"

"Baraque à frites? A friture?"

"Something not Bruxellois, in any event. Which means something totally incorrect, in my book."

"Now, Anna."

"And these fries aren't good."

"These fries are not good, no."

"I can't believe you got a fricadelle."

"It's not good either. I wish I had a mitraillette."

"I don't think I like France."

"Let's go home."

We decided to bike on the main road to get back to De Panne, avoiding the wind and the dunes. Two signs marked our crossing back into Belgium—one for Flanders, and one for Belgium itself. We threw our bikes to the side of the road and hugged each sign in turn.

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