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]

Crossing The Liffey: Our First And Last Full Day In Dublin’s Fair City

I was sitting opposite my wife in the restaurant of the Arlington Hotel where we are staying.  It’s just steps away from the O’Connell Street Bridge.  I was making strange, odd and contorted…some would say ugly faces in her direction.

She simply stared back at me.

My eyes watered and I continued to wiggle my face into creepy shapes.  She must have been thinking I was making faces at her, but she simply stared back at me.  I managed to make a comment.

“Funny what air-borne pepper can do to the inside of one’s nose,” I said.  I had just peppered my Irish Stew and the mashed potatoes that sat on the plate begging for a hit of pepper.

The sneeze, when it finally came, is something I’d rather not talk about since I had a small bit of stew at the back of my throat in the last stage of a swallow.

Like I said, I’d rather not talk about it.

I’d rather tell you how we had spent most of our one and only full day in this most unusual city.  The weather was cool, enough so to give me an excuse to buy an Irish tweed cap that I wore proudly the rest of the day.  I would have walked among the crowds as a local, a native, a true Dubliner, a real Irishman if it wasn’t for the Nikon D3200 DSL (red) around my neck.

We were exploring the section of the city called Temple Bar.  It’s across the Liffey from our hotel and it’s a very hip place indeed.  The focal point of Temple Bar is Trinity College where the famous Book of Kells is on display.  I’ll get back to that.

We were passing a theater and there was a small queue at the door.  I saw a young woman sitting on a step so I asked what she was waiting for.  She gave the name of a band that I had never heard about.  I was fixated on her forehead (for a change) and pushed the conversation a bit.

My wife waited patiently across the street.

“Do you know the area well?” I asked.

“No, I don’t actually live here.  What are you looking for?”

I had been thinking of the great poem “Raglan Road” by Patrick Kavanagh.  I know it best as one of my favorite Van Morrison songs from the Irish Heartbeat album that Morrison recorded with the Chieftains sometime in the mid 1980’s.

The poem is a tragic and heartbreaking lament of a man falling in love with a stranger.  A dark-haired woman.  The narrator knew somehow that “her dark hair would weave a snare that one day he would rue.”

He meets her on Grafton Street in November.  And, as in most Irish poems and songs, the love is unrequited.  At the end of the poem he sees her:

On a quiet street where old ghosts meet I see her walking now

Away from me so hurriedly my reason must allow…

I told the young woman I was looking for Grafton Street.  She knew where it was.

“Just go straight on until you see Trinity College and it’s just there.”

I thanked her.  Her name is Jessica.  She is beautiful and her forehead is quite fabulous.


We continued on toward Trinity College.  We were intent on seeing the Book of Kells.  A woman in our hotel lobby told me earlier that the lines are crazy and to “book online”.  But, we were at the admission desk of the Library and there were no lines.  We paid our fees and before we could say “calligraphy”, we were looking into the glass case containing, arguably, one of the most famous books in Western Civilization.  When they were burning women as witches in England, the scribes and artists of Ireland were copying this most impressive Illuminated Manuscript I’ve ever gazed upon.  I couldn’t even sneak a photo on my iPhone so you’ll have to Google it to get a sense of the fierce beauty of the page.

We then went into the Long Room of the Library.  Now, I love books…anyone who knows me is aware of that, so when I entered the main room, I nearly wept at the sheer number of volumes that are neatly stacked at least three stories high.


[This is only one of more than forty book stacks]

We stopped into one of the many pubs near the college for a bit of a rest.  When we emerged, we were only steps from a small intersection where the statue of Molly Malone was erected in 1988..

I looked at her sad face and her fish-monger wares and then leaned against a wall and thought of the few lines of the song that I could remember:

In Dublin’s fair city, where the girls are so pretty

I first set my eyes on sweet Molly Malone

As she wheeled her wheel barrow

Through streets broad and narrow

Crying ‘cockles and mussels alive a-live O!

Many tourists were crowded around to get the best angle.  She is cast in bronze and her plunging neckline reveals an ample bosom with cleavage to spare.  An Italian man climbed on the pedestal, and, in full view of the crowds, proceeded to put his hands on her bosom.  After he climbed down, I looked at the breasts of Molly Malone.  They were quite polished by the touch of many hands.


Honestly, men have only one thing on their mind.  Have they no shame?  I kept looking back at her chest and wondering why men are such crude blokes…when I nearly fell over a trash can.  I moved on to our final crossing of the Liffey.

We arrived at the far side of the O’Connell Bridge.  I didn’t want to go back to our room yet.  I wanted to soak in Dublin “in this fair old time.”  I hesitated beneath a lamp-post.

I looked into the waters of the Liffey and saw the reflections of the lights of our hotel on the far side.  I saw the reflections.  I felt the history.  I smelled the air.  I let the noise of the taxis and buses and chatting couples fill my ears.

When would I come here again?  When would I cross the O’Connell Bridge and look for that elusive white horse of legends?