An American In Brussels

Trust me. I can say a few words about how this grey-haired man is exhausted from what is only the early days of his European Tour. I was there, every minute…waiting for the train in Bruges and sitting in the hot humid air of Brussels Midi station wondering whether he should jump into a taxi or sit at a spaghetti restaurant across from the train station.

The guy decided to go to the restaurant and share a beer with his wife. He was unnerved. He knew nothing about the geography of Brussels. They took a taxi to the B & B they had found on an online booking service. When they got there, it was three flights up to a room that was very artistic, but lacked a desk, chairs and a fan. It was humid in Brussels that afternoon.

They spent a night there. He sweated through most of the dark hours. They took a walk and found the Grand Place.

It was the night before his birthday.

They made an unusual choice to depart the B & B and take a room at the Marriott. Not something he had planned to do…he wanted small hotels, European-style. But, he didn’t want to sweat another night.

They booked a room at the Marriott. Once they were allowed into their room, this tired old man took a nap.

Now, a little history:

This man, after he passed his mid 60’s, began to feel that each birthday had to include something somewhat unusual.

On his 67th birthday, they were in Paris. They climbed the steps to Sacre Coeur in Montmartre. On the 67th step, they stopped and embraced.

On his 68th birthday, they were in Dorset, England. They went to Salisbury Cathedral. They walked 68 steps down the central aisle of the nave, stopped and embraced.

Some years passed. They didn’t find themselves in a foreign country on his birthday, so it was all low-key. Should we take 69 steps toward the local post office and stop and embrace?

That wasn’t going to do it for him. So, how did it all play out today in Brussels…a city he knew very little about. The answer was beneath their feet.

The cobblestones!

He chose a side street with a beautiful cobblestone pavement. They tiptoed 71 tiles (cobblestones?) and stopped and embraced.

Then it began to rain very hard. They ran to the restaurant that was enthusiastically recommend.

As he ate his cod dish, he was already thinking about number 72.

[All photos are mine]

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Bruges Makes Me Sad

[Mariam and her husband after dinner at the Market Square.]

Occasionally, during your life you arrive at a destination that forces you to hold your breath, for too long, and then exhale with an audible gasp. Your heart can hold off on a beat and then give you an extra pump. And a part of your thoughts fade…you lose a sense of time. The view before your eyes alters your senses in more than a few ways.

This happened to me the first time I visited Bruges (Brugge, if you wish) in the mid 1980’s. I walked beside the canals, then lined with lace and chocolate shops. I paused with my friend who was traveling with me. I had to lean against a tree. I was overcome by a deep and very intense sense of melancholy. I began to cry.

I was in Bruges and I was sad.

In my heart, I knew why this was happening, but I was reluctant to put it into words. How could anyone really understand my inner thoughts?

I never forgot my visit from that year. We were given a choice, after studying posters, of a free Mozart concert in the City Hall or a one-ring European circus just outside of the old city.

We chose the circus. I don’t need to tell you how I fell in love with the trapeze star. She was beautiful and she soared back and forth like an undecided angel. If you ever see the film Wings of Desire you will get an idea of how I felt. (Spoiler!) In the film, the main character is an angel who falls in love with a trapeze artist. Of course angels can’t do that…so he pays the price…by losing his wings.

On a quiet street where old ghosts meet,

I see her walking now away from me,

So hurriedly. My reason must allow,

For I have wooed, not as I should

A creature made of clay.

When the angel woos the clay, he’ll lose

His wings at the dawn of the day.

–Raglan Road by Patrick Kavanagh

I cannot separate this poem (later a song by Van Morrison), from my experience in the 1980’s. You feel special and celestial, one moment and then you feel human the next. But love, beauty, art, youth and history were in the mix of tea leaves I drank the following morning.

So, now I’m back in Bruges with my wife, Mariam, thirty-three years later, and I’m feeling the same melancholy thoughts that made me lean against a tree so many years ago and begin to cry.

My thoughts now are the same as they were then. As our train came to a stop at the rail station, the very same emotions overcame me.

But is all this simply about the love of beauty and the beauty of love?

Why did I lean against that sycamore tree? It was because of a question that became evident the moment I walked into the Market Square so many years ago:

Why can’t the world have more places as beautiful as Bruges?  Why is art defined by the amount of steel and glass?  There are beautiful buildings in New York City, but not that many.  The Woolworth Building. The Chrysler Building. The Empire State Building.

But, this isn’t a post about Manhattan. It’s about how one young man found beauty in an old Belgian town…and, not knowing how age changes perspectives, found the same feeling decades later. Laying expectations on someone, like your wife, is blatantly unfair. Even so, I needed Mariam to see the beauty of this town, as I did.

When we visited the Louvre, Mariam and I had a conversation about beauty and art and the feelings of the soul. I told her that many of the great paintings (please don’t ask for examples) made me sad. She replied that great art should elevate the soul and evoke happiness. I said that really profound art, like Venus de Milo, did the opposite for me. She is most beautiful in her sadness.

Beautiful art, beautiful men and women, ancient Roman and Greek female nudes and beautiful cities make me yearn for a better world…one without hatred and violence. The destruction of art in the name of any god, is a godless act.

I suppose this post is about love and beauty.

 

[All photos are mine]

People Watching: Our Final Night In Paris

If you are a frequent reader of my posts, you will probably have noticed that I like to make up stories about people and things I don’t know anything about. The pleasure, for me as a blogger, is that I’m not bound in by only what I read or hear.  The type of posts I choose to write free me of mere facts.  I can invent an entire world.

True, many of my older blogs dealt with memories and dwelling in those memories. This post is something of both. I’ve tried to record, with a few meager photos and some scribbled notes, my thoughts and imaginings about watching the people on the streets of Paris, on a warm day in late May. This is a fraction of what I feel I could write about, but I’m a guy who needs limits.

We walk the streets. We sit in cafes and bistros and taverns. I sit and I think. I sit and imagine.

I watch the pretty young women riding bicycles, backs straight, skirts flowing and smiles on their faces. I wish they wore helmets. Some do, most don’t.

Along the narrow sidewalks, confident women with swishing skirts, breezy and full of thoughts of the future.  Behind them, are dignified older women with chunky necklaces. Some walk with friends…some are alone. I always wonder about an elderly woman alone. Is it by choice? Is she missing someone…a female partner or older husband?

I always wonder about these things.

I look at the young brash men, full of exuberance, full of expectations of a life yet to be lived. They are defiant and gentle from one second to the next. I observe no macho strutting. I see confidence and disregard for a danger that may lurk around the corner as they speed off on their scooters.

Children ride scooters, girls with pink helmets, boys with blue. Always a parent to wait at the corner. Always a mother to hold a hand. Always a father to proudly guide his son to the next corner and to their life beyond.

There are old grizzled men who look like they are keeping a secret. Standing on the corner, they smoke and think and they stare in the middle distance. Are they trying to forget? Trying to remember?

Next to them are the handsome middle-age men, comfortable in their middle years. Did they just leave the apartment of their mistress? Did they just say good-bye to their mistress? Was this their first afternoon with their mistress?

Some of the teenage girls seem wary, unsure of how to present themselves. Others are older than their years and know exactly how they look to the others boys, or girls, on those narrow streets.

There are more women, beautiful and lithe as models, chatting on their cellphones.

In the cafes, handsome men, handsome as Yves Montand, sip a mid-day white wine. Nearby are the waiters, black jackets and white aprons that extend to their ankles. They are ever vigilant and attentive to their patrons in need of a second espresso. Elsewhere in the bar are lonely men and lonely women, reading and holding onto their glass of rose or beer.

I feel like I’ve watched a thousand lives pass in front of me. Behind each face they hold a history of their life, secretly in their minds until a foreigner like me intrudes into their memories, inventing lives for them they surely never imagined.

It’s getting close to dusk. I hear sirens, so many sirens that I think there’s been another terrorist attack. The sirens. Is Putin in town?

The buzzing roar of the scooters, some small and innocent like a Vespa and others large…willing and able to wear the Harley crest.

At our last restaurant, I snapped a photo of a woman fanning herself (it was humid). It was one of those flirtatious Carmen-style fans.  She was totally absorbed in a conversation with her three friends and totally oblivious to the fact that an American, grey-haired and middle-aged (?) had stolen her privacy.

Some cultures believe that taking a photograph of someone, somehow robs them of their souls. Do I have her soul in my iPhone? In the cloud?

Yes, I do believe that I have stolen her soul. In years to come, I can scroll back and look at her. I possess her image. She and her friends will soon forget this evening. They will move into new lives and become different.

And when I remember that final evening in that Italian restaurant in Paris, all those people who stepped in front of my camera…I have their images frozen. And I can thaw them out anytime and play with new versions of a thousand life stories.

One or two of them may touch the truth.

 

[All photos are mine.]

 

 

The “Popcorn” Man

[The Street Vender. Photo is mine.]

At first I thought he was selling a popcorn necklace. He would walk up and down the rows of diners, whose tables (here in Paris) always face the streets. And he would peddle his “popcorn” necklaces to those at the tables that were closest to the sidewalk.

Yes, I thought he was selling “popcorn” necklaces. If I bought one, would I eat it for dessert as I walked home? He seemed to be at every restaurant on the Boulevard St. Germain.

The more I saw the man, the more I thought about his life. I lived in New York City for almost three decades so I thought I knew about street/restaurant venders. Mostly those individuals sold roses, or played Do-Wop, or simply held out an old Greek coffee cup that all the delis and hot dog guys sold coffee in.

They held out their empty cups.  I had no way to discern whether or not they were truly “homeless”, truly “veterans”, truly in need. I had to go on instinct. Was this just a pan-handler (and there are more and more on the streets of New York) or someone truly in need of two quarters or three dimes.

So, I thought more about the “popcorn” man as the days went by. People rarely bought anything from him. I would watch him work the rows of diners. Most paid him no attention.

I thought about him at night when I couldn’t sleep. I thought about him when I walked through the Louvre. I thought about him when I sat and contemplated Notre Dame.

What was his life like?  Did he go home after his rounds? Who gave him the necklaces to sell? Did he have a family? Did he have to sell his wares to feed his children? Was he a widower who went home alone to an empty flat? Was he a happy man? Did he hold dark secrets in his heart?  Was he even married?

But, the real question that kept looming in my mind was quite simple.

Was this man lonely? Was his only human contact with those who pretended he wasn’t even there or brushed him off as an annoyance to their Parisian dinner?

When I looked at him, I tried to work out his life…but, clearly, that was an impossible task.

Until tonight.

I made sure we were seated up front, near the sidewalk. I had my iPhone. I wanted to ask him his name. I wanted to take his photo. I wanted to make some kind of contact.

And, I wanted to buy the necklace of “popcorn”.  I would eat it, as dessert on the way back to the hotel.

I nearly gave up on finding him.  Then, there he was. Four tables away. Then three.

Finally, he stopped at our table. I indicated that I’d like to buy his merchandise. He smiled and sold me the necklace for 3 euros.

“Where are you from?” I asked.

“Bangladesh,” he replied.

Before he could walk away…before I could ask his name, I asked what it was that I just bought. From the first touch I knew it wasn’t popcorn.

[The Jasmine Necklace. The Photo is mine.]

“It’s Jasmine. Jasmine flowers,” he said as he walked off, moving on to another restaurant. Ten seconds after we had spoken, I lost him among the the pedestrians.

Now our room is filled with the scent of Jasmine.

I’d like to think (maybe it’ll help me sleep) that I made a quiet street vendor smile, even for a second, and fall asleep to the scent of Jasmine.

 

Street Scene In Paris

[Paris is a city of light and charm.]

It was our first day in the City of Light. Getting there involved subjecting ourselves to a subtle form of modern torture.  We were taking a “red-eye” from JFK to Paris.  We flew American Airlines because we’re addicted to air miles.  I won’t tell you how many miles I’ve accrued, but I will say that I earned every one of them.  My intent is not to dis American Airlines in this blog, but I can’t help but convey how long and endless and really awful the flight was. The food was fine, considering it was airline fare. But, for a trans-Atlantic flight, most everything was woefully below par.  The screens for the in-flight movie were not viewable unless one wanted to combine eye-strain with minor neck injuries.

At the end of the nearly seven hour flight, I thought I needed a massage on 22nd Street. My legs hurt, my back hurt and there was not enough leg room to raise a knee to tie a shoe lace or stretch a muscle in the lumbar region.

But, I digress.

After a two-hour taxi ride to our hotel near St. Sulpice, I was ready for one thing. A two-hour nap. After a three-hour nap, we pulled ourselves together and headed to see some places we loved in the Latin Quarter. I wanted to climb to the bell towers of Notre Dame, but the line (in a blazing sun) put me off.

I can’t take the heat and the direct sun.  I’m Irish.

So, we headed over to Shakespeare & Company Bookstore, which is a must stop for me.  I love the place.  But, I didn’t need another book to carry on our journey, so I opted for a beer instead.

And this is where the story begins.

It was a street full of foot traffic.

[It all took place on a busy street, just like this.]

We chose to sit facing the street just off the Rue St Michel. It’s busy and touristy.  As we sat in the shade, I noticed there was a homeless man sleeping on a foam pad surrounded by a few pieces of luggage.  I can’t say he was truly homeless, but I noticed all the signs.  We sat for forty minutes, reluctant to go back to the hotel and too tired to explore much more of the Latin Quarter.

I watched the man who slept.  He was in the middle of a busy sidewalk.

Another line of thought came to me.  I had heard of the deranged people who drove trucks into crowds and even went on stabbing rampaged.  I wondered about the SWAT patrols and where they were hiding out.  Then I spotted three well protected (but not heavily armed) police wander by.

A few minutes later, three more SWAT members (two female and one male) approached the sleeping guy on the sidewalk in front of me.

I was prepared for violence that would later be seen on YouTube.  They prodded the guy to determine if he was alive, dead, drunk, stoned or flying on some other drug.  I was prepared to not like what I was about to see.

Instead, the three officers, finally roused the man and got him to his feet.  I was sure they were going to cart him away…

But, they helped him walk to a spot by a street lamp.  Out of the way of the amount of foot traffic.  They dragged his belongings to his side.  He lay back and fell asleep.

The officers walked away.  No hassles.  No arrests.  No clubbing.

I wondered about the man’s life and what brought him to this busy sidewalk.  Then I felt grateful that he was in Paris, where no one used clubs or made him vanish into the bright light of the afternoon.

And all this happened within sight of this:

c

[Notre Dame Cathedral]

 

So What Does A Man Do?

Okay, you read my last post. You know how males hormones can get out of control. Am I right?

So, what did I do after we got to the hotel, and after we met my son and his girlfriend?  I did what every red-blooded American male lover does.

I went to a topless bar down somewhere on 21st. Street and 10th Avenue.  A very desirable location, so I’ve heard, for more reasons than one.

The place glared with red neon…that’s a good thing in that part of town.  It was called “GA-GA’S”…or something like that.  Does it matter?

[Photo source: Google]

I sat at the bar next to the next dancer.  She said her name was Maxie.  I paid $9.00 for my beer and $375.00 for her glass of “champagne”.  For a moment I was in love.  Then I caught a look at her college ID.  Her name was Dierdre and she was a candidate for a Masters in Developmental Psychology at NYU.

This is NOT to say that strippers can’t be candidates for any degree.  But, there was something…..

She looked at me as if she were interested in me…in being her next subject in her Thesis.

She asked my name.  I said: “Patrick and I’m a writer blogger kind of guy.”

Maxie looked at me and said:  “I’ve seen your type way too often. You’ve been caught in traffic too long, my friend.  See ya later.”

I left and tried to catch a cab for my hotel.

The traffic was hell.

 

 

Our Dream Trip: So What’s All The Fuss?

[Photo source: Google search]

It began as an ordinary rainy morning in Albany, New York.  We stayed over at a Marriott to break the trip a little and to get a fresh start for the final leg.  To Manhattan and drop off the Budget rent car, get to our hotel on W. 35th St., and then to head uptown to meet some friends for dinner.

Simple plan, right?

I’ve had many bad days in traffic in many cities.  I’ve sat in New York State Thruway traffic for an entire afternoon in a blizzard.  I’ve been in a car for hours trying to get across the Bourne Bridge to enjoy Cape Cod.  I once pulled off I-95 just outside Stamford, CT and had to have dinner while the back-up on I-95 came down to only a ninety minute delay.  I know traffic.  I’m no novice and any man who says I am, well, I’ll meet them in the parking lot of the closest Dairy Queen and ‘discuss’ the issues.

But, nothing, nothing compares to what happened when we pulled off the West Side Highway in the West 50’s and headed to the rent car garage.  It was located on W. 49th St. between 8th and 9th Ave.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it?

Well, the break-down of sanity started with us in the middle of a Hells Kitchen Street Fair.  Don’t get me wrong, I love Street Fairs, I bought many used CD’s and knife-sets at street fairs, but don’t hold one on the day I need to drop off a rent. And many cross-town streets were closed and traffic rather thick.

We had to get to the rent car place by 5:00pm.  It was about 3:30.  Was I worried?  No, but Mariam, who grew up in the City and knew traffic better than I, was getting antsy.  But, she made a fatal mistake.  She told me to turn right at a point when I should have turned left.

So, of course traffic got worse.  Did I mention that many of the cross-town streets were blocked.  Why?  One would need to go to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, light a candle, and plead the question to the gods of the transit authority.

But, St. Pat’s may as well have been in Staten Island, considering the congestion.

It was 4:37 pm by now. and we were still only three blocks away.  On a Saturday afternoon in NYC, with a Street Fair going on, being three blocks away was like being in New Hampshire.  But, I still thought we’d make it.

We turned right onto 49th Street.  We drove a block.  We were between 8th and 9th Ave.  We were as good as home, until I read her the address on a building to my left.  It was at one or two digits different from the location of the garage.

At this point, all I knew for certain was that we were in the proper borough…Manhattan.  I ‘asked’ her to call the place and ask where the h**l they were located.  She did. The woman said something like: “Oh, you can just make the block.”  Mariam told her there was no block to make.  Traffic was at a standstill.  Where was the drop-off place?

[Quiet Streets at 2:30 am]

It turns out we had drove past it, 3/4 of a block behind us.  It was 4:47 pm.  Mariam walked back a bit and found the place.  Not clearly signed as a Budget rental facility.  But, what were we to do at this point? I made a very male-like executive decision.  I told her to get out of the car.  Walk back on 49th Street and make hand signals to divert the traffic and make way for me to violate several traffic laws.  I told her to wave everyone on this narrow one-way street to the left.  That would enable me to back up almost an entire block to the garage.  I can’t tell you how many traffic codes this action was going to defy, but I took solace in the fact that if I got arrested and cuffed, at least I would have access to a bathroom.

How the bathroom scene played out in the Budget Rental garage is a whole other story and a whole other blog.

So, we met out friends for dinner.  And, last night (I’m writing this at 3:00 am on Monday), we had a great time visiting my son, Brian, his girlfriend, Kristin.

[Me, Mariam,Brian and Kristin]

The streets are quiet now.

On Tuesday afternoon, we fly to Paris.  We’re going to get a taxi from De Gaulle Airport to our hotel in central Paris. I’m full of anticipation and excitement. Paris traffic, I understand, is a breeze.

But, do you want to know something?

I love New York.