When I walked by the fisherman gazing into one of Bruges' green canals at midnight last night, there was only one eel in his translucent, woven basket, which floated just below the waterline. "That's fishing," he told me, two of the only words he knew that sounded like English, aside from "Vacances?" and "estudente?" It was a warm night, like it also is tonight. He smiled gently, as I have seen so many Belgians do, and turned back to his floater and his pole.
With our twenty ducklings, and a hitchhiker brood of bedbugs
clinging to Cam's belongings, I arrived to Bruges on Monday and will leave
tomorrow for the Netherlands. Rotterdam, then Amsterdam. With a quick second
stop in Belgium in Antwerp for the day tomorrow.Bruges rises out of the southern part of the North European Plain
before it stops at the sea, in a jumble of gingerbread buildings and
cobblestone streets, built during the medieval era and scarcely touched since.
It is a monument to riches and poverty, as riches built it, when the city became
the major port connection to the Mediterranean, and before the canals silted
in, bringing over three hundred years of poverty. No one could afford to change
a thing. It was such a minor town, even during the world wars of the 20th
century, that no one bothered to bomb it. It crept through the 1900s until
suddenly, Europe turned and saw it again for the first time, as a perfectly
preserved medieval town, its metal boot-scraping contraptions still wedged into
the bottoms of 1400 era buildings, left from when the streets were filled with
shit and you wanted to be clean before you entered your friend’s house. The
brick buildings have iron reinforcement bands on their outsides and terracotta
roofs. The bridges stretch in minor arcs over the narrow canals, and swans
glide around everywhere, just daring someone to get close. From Belgian, according to our dry-wit guide, we have the term
“shit-faced,” for when you were drunk and walking on the streets at night. Upon
hearing the warning signal from someone above, before they threw the contents
of their chamber pot out the window, you looked up in drunken surprise, instead
of deftly leaping aside. From this undercurrent, its not surprising to see Belgians
enjoying their first beer at 10 in the morning, after a leisurely ride to work
on their huge bicycles with beautiful panniers. Sustainability doesn’t have a
particular project here; it is, instead, a beautiful part of the way most here
live. Over 60 percent of the city’s population bikes to work. Beer from one brewery
is piped under the city streets to its pub, rather than using trucks. Velux
windows light the centuries old beams in the attic room I’m living in, and
second hand shops line the street that leads to the city’s main square. Belgians are sometimes joked as lazy, drunk or without ambition by
the neighbouring Dutch. A kind of southerner in a northern land. As we creep
closer to Germany, of which I am mildly terrified, I appreciate these southern
northerners the more. Their easy smiles, their relaxed attitudes, the person
after person passing on bike this morning, who, seeing Cam sitting out in the
early sun with his coffee, called out, “allo!” or “nice!” They like pleasure.
They invite it. Things move slowly and gently, though even with a city that
takes only 20 minutes to cross, I am managing to walk 20 kilometres a day, the
same as in monumental Paris.
They're down there below me now, at midnight again, drinking in
the hostel's pub with the travellers, and spilling into the streets. I'm going
to go see the fishermen again.