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]