[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]