March 27, 2023

In one of my insomnia episodes, I recalled the first time that I experienced an AirBnb (as in “air bed and breakfast)”, during our early travels. As you well know, it is the kind of service where property owners rent out their rooms or spaces in their homes to travellers looking for a place to stay. Back then, it was merely called “bed and breakfast.”
It was during our road trip with my parents and sisters to Belgium, The Netherlands, Luxembourg, and France that I was introduced to bed and breakfast accommodation.
In the early 80’s, although the different countries in Europe were easily accessible as they were in one continent, travelers needed to have a visa for each country that they intended to visit, and which must be presented at every border control. But Belgium, Netherlands, and Luxembourg, back then, had a unified visa called “BeNeLux” as they were in one region.
My sister Vangie who acted as our tour guide brought us to Luxembourg first as she knew a place where she and husband Joachim had stayed before. The house was a chalet situated in the Old Quarter (d’Stad) of Luxembourg City. The owners were a young couple with a six-year-old son. There were four comfortable bedrooms on the second floor with picture windows that overlooked the city’s old fortresses, cobbled streets and bridges.
On the night when we arrived, the young couple and their son graciously invited us to dinner where we were treated to the city’s popular “Bouneschlupp” – a thick soup with green beans, potatoes, bacon, carrots, leeks, onions, and milk. They told us their parents and grandparents were among the older citizens of Luxembourg. Over a bottle of wine to cap our dinner, they told us how Luxembourg, which is one of the smallest countries in the world, lost a big chunk of its territory to Belgium. It, however, gained so much autonomy and became Europe’s most powerful investment management center.
The following day, after breakfast of “kaffi”, we went to the tourist information office to inquire about interesting places to go to.
After spending another night in Luxembourg, Vangie drove us to Bruges, Belgium. Upon arrival, we went to the tourist information office where we inquired from another friendly tourist information officer where to stay. Instead of a hotel or inn, she encouraged us to try home-stay. We agreed, and so the officer dialed a number on the telephone and called a house owner on their list. She spoke to someone after which she got a map and talked with Vangie, drawing on the map the direction to the house where we would be billeted. She also told us the daily room rates which included breakfast.
We arrived at the house five minutes later where a couple in their late 50s was waiting for us by the entrance of the house. The smiling couple ushered us into their living room where we got to know each other over a cup of tea and homemade biscuits. They told us that it would be their joy to bring and show us around their ancient city and would love to bring us to Ghent which was some 45 minutes drive from Bruges. Because of the couple’s eagerness and gentle persuasions, we agreed and so we stayed with them for four nights. During the nights we were together, the couple told us snippets of Belgian history and the loss of Napoleon in the Battle of Waterloo. The couple also gave my mom a veil of lace and for us, boxes of chocolates as souvenirs. Lace making is what Bruges is widely known for and, of course, Belgian chocolates are the best in the world. Mom whispered that the price of the rooms charged us could not compensate for the hospitality of our gracious hosts.
I could never forget what the Belgian tourism officer told me why they were encouraging their residents to open their homes to tourists, providing safeguards for the purpose. She said to really know the culture of a place and appreciate its people, you must feel the warmth of their smiles and the enthusiasm of the inhabitants who grew with the city’s history, to interact with its visitors. There must be a lesson to be learned there – building hotels vis-à-vis building bridges of friendship.