Well, I’ve ticked off two items from my ‘things to do before I die’ list. I got Eurostar, the flight under the sea, and I have been to Atomium, the most enduring symbol of the ‘it’s a knockout years’.
If travel is a learning experience, what did I learn about Europe? I learned that they pipe music into underground car parks in Belgium. Belgians can’t believe that we know so little about comics in UK. They tend to consider themselves either Flemish or Wallonian within the broader Belgian political framework which mainly provides a context for that opposition. In another sense though, to be Belgian is to not be French, Dutch or German and the Belgian state is a guarantor of that. There is a lot canine waste in the streets. Driving through the woods from Louvain to Wavre, I was reminded of scenes from old films and war footage and was moved to remember the extraordinary loss of life here. For all its faults, a European parliament is surely a better alternative than a European war.
Alvaro and I started in Maaastricht and did not manage to prise the owner away from any his beliefs about breakfast i.e. that it he needs to know the day before if you are gonna eat it and it remains $7.50 no matter what you eat. It was a nice guest house though; clean and cosy. Maastricht was filled with shoppers from German and Belgian towns as well as some friendly locals. We met one guy watching the football, cheering Bayern Munich ostensibly due to the Dutch management and players. One of the local cafes benefited greatly from our proximity with my travel companion homing in on it a source of decent lunches and dinners.
There are a lot of department stores in Maastricht which seems a little old-fashioned compared to UK, where many of them have closed and been converted into cinema complexes etc. It also has a lot of clothes stores and is perhaps known as a home of chic in the area.
Plenty of cold millet flakes for all the main meals, as well as rain, a lack of banks, supermarkets and food prep facilities in the accommodation made the business of eating something of a trial. But how much would I have remembered the food I ate in Greater London if I had stayed at home?
I liked walking by the river in Maastricht, down to the art gallery that looks like a spaceship. There I disdained the contemporary art alone, in the absence of my brother who may have felt the same.
In the evening I went in search of the friends of Bill W. They were said to be located in a Burthuis on the other side of the tracks. I showed the address I had written to guy a smoking outside an art studio and he directed my around the corner to a community-style centre place with brass band standing outside, also smoking. From there I got directed back in the direction of the studio and found the said Burthuis. Bert wasn’t there but I met with the locals and did a Dutch language meeting of which I did not understand a word, except when the participants switched to English to swear. They were very friendly though and didn’t laugh when I pulled out my peppermint tea bag and it started leaking. I was worried that they might think it is grass.
Getting the train back across the border was an uncomplicated business, although I did find that Belgian trains were often delayed by considerable amounts.
Leuven is a small town outside Brussels about 15km. I stayed in a youth hostel there, for maybe the last time. The friendly guy at the desk booked me into room 205 where I met with an atmosphere of old cigarette smoke and old cigarette smoker. No good for the asthma there so I asked to be switched. The guy on the desk switched me to room 103 and there, camping below a fairly accomplished snorer on the first night proper, I did manage to get some sleep. I prayed for sleep and the guy stopped snoring immediately. This created a false sense of security and hubris in light of what would follow/
In the morning, still in 103, I had my reading light on, angering an older guy in the room who said something: ‘Stop light, my no lazy… I no sleepen… I geet mein card.’ Also teaching me some curses in Flemish and how to communicate rancour where there is no common language, he threw the main light switch off, by means of snatching back his key card from the its wall housing. I know for a fact that confrontation inhibits sleep dramatically so I doubted his chances of dropping off in these circumstances. My use of a torch to continue reading provoked more cursing, so I returned to the desk and was relocated to room 204.
In between the ongoing saga of room hopscotch, I did meet up with Alvaro to have a look around Brussels. Grand place is a really stunning square in the town centre, appearing much older than anything of a similar ilk in London. I visited the museum there and met some local charm: ‘no bag, no camera, no cell phone.’
We also visited the Cathedral which was a beautiful building. The theme that emerged for me during that visit was that although these old buildings stayed the same for such a long time, I was not the same. My experience of healing and restoration, by God’s grace, is that he does not seek to maintain the original fixtures, design and proportions. He is building something else, something for his spirit to live in.
On the same day we also walked to the EU parliament. I feel tired just thinking about it.
Back in the hostel then, now in room 204, I met with a one-man bronchial symphony. Move over Mr Snuffolupiccous from Sesame St., your time as the worst case of sinus congestion known to man is over. All was quiet between 11:00pm and 1:00am but by 1:30am he was in full swing. As I sat there wondering if I was allowed to wake him up, he may have had a dim sense of ire flowing towards him, as he did wake up. He said ‘hello’ then went back to sleep, unswervingly committed to his path of nightmare nasal resonance.
Without sleep I went to Bruges. This may have coloured the day grey a little but it was still nice to walk by the canals and think of the people I love, albeit that they weren’t there. All the other tourists were there, but I stole a march of them by going round it very quickly. I had a cup of tea in the oldest tea house in Bruges, then another cold meal in the cold square and it was time to get back to try and rest.
Alvaro and I spent the last day with the guys we knew in Belgium. We had lunch in a Turkish restaurant in town, dining on kebab, lamb chops, mixed and cold millet flakes, depending on your preference. We drove to the Atomium – a place I had wanted to see ever since I saw it on ‘It’s a knockout’. One of the guys remembered the program but our visit passed without any of the Belgians ‘falling over’ as they famously did during the show.
I must admit, I love the atomium. I am not sure if makes science interesting but it does illustrate how complex even the smallest things are. The Lord God made them well. The structure makes me feel nostalgic for a time when I had a great deal of confidence in human progress and achievement, connecting back how I must have felt when I first saw it on ‘It’s a knockout’ all those years ago.
Then we went to the Comic museum where the whole array of Belgian illustrative talent is on show, including some little blue fellas you might have thought were French; le smurf. The museum is also located a road with the moniker ‘smurf straat’. If you ever worried about these creatures growing in size and gaining more influence over human affairs, do not go to this museum; it will worry you. Otherwise it was good to see Tintin in his natural habitat.
After all that, it was lovely to know that we were just two hours away from London. After a stand up dinner of millet flakes, raw carrot and tuna, we were done. Didn’t even notice the crowds of people milling around me to discover how to prepare such an amazing dish to eat on the run - the art of decanning tuna in public and other such arts untthinkable for the poplulation at large.