04.08.2016 - 05.08.2016 72 °F
*How temporally disjunct it feels to be writing these final entries from the comfort of my couch a week after the end of my trip – the blog must be completed! I neglected to post my final entry from my last trip in 2014 and I still feel guilty about that.
Day 13 began in Brussels, in the World’s Most Gorgeously Decorated Airbnb. I would seriously consider taking a trip back to Brussels – a city I haven’t seen very much of – just to stay here for, say, another week. It may be as close as I ever get to living quarters that feel like Versailles!
I decide to sleep in – does one ever actually decide to sleep in? – then spend the first hour (at least) writing a blog entry seated at the couch in the opulent living room. By the time I venture out to get my “morning coffee,” it’s probably at least 2pm.
Brussels is overcast, at least ten degrees cooler than Spain and Portugal; the whole city feels slightly moody. I walk past venders and meandering locals through the center of town, which is mostly a shopping district – all manner of upscale department stores advertising, I would assume, to the wealthy international diplomatic crowd who call Brussels their temporary home. (There’s a restaurant calling itself the “Boston Café.” Call me skeptical.) There are a number of imposing, official-looking buildings, each with two armed guards at each entrance – the feeling of being a city still on edge after a recent terrorist attack seems to hang like a cloud over the city.
I’m heading toward the famous outdoor flea market my host David had told me about. Not finding a suitable place for a take out coffee and pastry, I pop into a supermarket for a Starbucks (what else?) iced latte and a delicious éclair. (I still somewhat regret not buying the bottle of Elixir of St. Anviers, famous old Belgian liqueur, which sold for 23 Euro at this market.) I buy a Brussels magnet at a quirky souvenir store.
After passing through a few overpriced antique stores, I finally come upon the flea market, and it’s just as intoxicating and wild as advertised. Most of the dealers are Arabic in origin, and they have their wares spread out over canvases and rugs – the detritus of lives long since past, of whom in general nothing is known today. (Otherwise, one assumes their families would have held on to all of these aged photos and keepsakes.)
I purchase a few trinkets: a tiny box with a rose on it, a small 1950s flamenco record, four very pretty old cordial glasses with “E. Henry et Fils, Floreffes” stamped on them. I Google the name and find out “E. Henry” was a liquor maker in the nearby Belgian town of Floreffe sometime in the 1930s. (I consider just buying one for the stated price of one Euro, but instantly regret separating them, so offer two Euro for all four, which the dealer accepts. With hindsight it’s nice to have a set of four of them and have already used them at home!)
I spot two smart Art Deco frames housing two gorgeous photos of a young girl; as the market is closing down, the box is about to be put on the loading truck so I know the time is prime for some haggling. (David had advised me to set my price and not them take advantage of my English speaking American-ness!) I offer the dealer one Euro for both. He laughs and says ten; I counter with five, he laughs again and says eight; I say six and that’s it and start to walk away and he says “Ok! Ok!” His friend, a fellow man of Arabic descent, laughs and says “Oh, the American is good!” He then proceeds to wrap the frames in newspaper for me – a kind, friendly gesture – and asks me where I’m headed next. I tell him about my plan to take a train to Ghent and he says “Stay away from this area of town! Walk in this direction,” and points me toward the Brussels Midi Station. It’s a nice interchange.
As the dealers pack their trucks and leave the marketplace, the flotsam of the fair seems to float around the square, carried aloft by the stiffening breeze: packets of photos of family vacations from the 1950s, newspapers, small, broken trinkets. I spot a hard cardboard photo and claim it from the dumpster for which it is certainly headed. A grinning couple peer back from the mid 1930s, nameless, their story only guessed at. Did they make it through the war? What became of their lives? It’s one of my favorite items I picked up on the trip, and it didn’t cost a thing. I publish it to Instagram and my crew of vintage-minded friends agree it’s a special shot.
Now carrying a heavy plastic bag in addition to my camera, I make my way toward the train station, stopping outside the square when I see a full case of unopened (!) Budvar, the “original Budweiser.” Who left this here? It’s probably from the 1950s or 60s. I can’t imagine this would sell for under $100 in the US, but in Europe it’s perhaps less exotic? I take three bottles to give as gifts, sad I can’t justify taking more, and continue on my way, bags now ever heavier.
I get to the train station and purchase a round-trip ticket to Ghent, a small Belgian town I had almost made it to during my first solo trip to Europe back in 2010. All goes fine and I get on the high-speed train which only takes about 30 minutes. I get off and start walking toward the center of Ghent, using the cathedral as a destination spot in my phone.
Along the way I stop into a junk store, picking up an old UK-printed edition of three plays by Noel Coward for one Euro. The old woman seems almost shocked someone has troubled her to give her money.
It’s a long walk into the center of town – maybe 30 minutes? – but I don’t believe in busses! St. Bavo's cathedral is set to close at 6pm and it’s about 5:30, so perfect timing to see a bit of it. It’s a gorgeous, vast Gothic vessel, stuffed with old art and history. I can’t help thinking of the tremendous Renaissance composers who came from close to this area, most notably Josquin, Ockeghem, and Clemens non Papa, whose music and illusive life I studied in a course with eminent BU professor Joshua Rifkin two years ago.
Exiting the cathedral, I find an outdoor café next door to sit down and have some food; I have a delicious vegetarian pasta with pesto and a Westmalle triple. (I remember having this on tap in Amsterdam and it’s a real treat.)
I put out a tweet about Ghent with a shot of the cathedral, and a very worldly friend from my local Backbar back in Somerville responds that I ought to go to beer bar called Het Waterhuis aan de Bierkant, which my iPhone tells me is only a few minutes away, so I walk that way, past a well-maintained, bustling public square where hundreds amble.
The bar is as advertised, a real connoisseur’s choice. I have a Chouffe, and settle in, having some friendly chat with one of the bartenders about local beer and what it’s like to live in Ghent.
I make it a few pages into Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit, and a woman next to me asks what I’m reading. I end up chatting with Sophie and her boyfriend Wim for the next couple of hours, and we have an absolutely terrific time, buying each other beers and extending my intended hour-long stop into probably four. I mention I have to get back to the train to get to Brussels and they insist I take their spare room in Ghent, a short walk away. We stay up on their porch in their gorgeous apartment drinking Laphroaig (and water, thankfully), looking over the city with the cathedral in the horizon. Wim is a journalist/photographer and Sophie a PhD student studying animal welfare, and they strike me as the type of folks I’ll see again some day.
It’s 3am or so by the time I get to sleep and I’m so thankful – yet again – for serendipity coming to my aid in the form of a terrific town and two new friends!