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11.04.2010

Present Meets Past in Antwerp 

My soul feels healthy again.  There’s nothing like a good dose of travel to combat the feeling of emptiness that descends upon me very often in life.  Life may be meaningless, but at least it can be filled with worthwhile experiences.  I just returned from the train journey home, I’m extremely tired from having woken up at 5:30 to catch my early train, it’s cloudy and drizzling, and my mood is what I would describe as a gentle melancholy.  The song in my head, Engima’s “Page of Cups” is the perfect expression of what I’m feeling now. This is not happiness—far from it—but it certainly feels like inner peace. 

I haven’t seen Connie, a girl I used to live with during my craziest college year living at 12 Autumn Lane with seven other people, since I moved out almost six years ago.  But there was something about that house that bonded us together, and when she learned through Facebook that I was living in Germany and told me she’d be in Antwerp on business for the week if I wanted to come for the weekend, I naturally decided to go. 

So on Friday I began the six hour journey from Hannover to Antwerp with a thirty minute wait between trains in Cologne.  Because the cathedral is right next to the train station I was able to go walk around inside it again—Europe’s biggest and possibly most beautiful cathedral.  I hadn’t expected to go back after going there with Krissi, but since the chance presented itself I knew I had to take it.  That put my mind back into travel mode for the first time since the adventures with Krissi last Fall. 

There was another changeover in Brussels, and I would have liked to walk around there a bit because I’ve heard from a few people that it’s their favorite city, but I only had five minutes so I couldn’t leave the station.  It was only a 45-minute ride from there to Antwerp, and I arrived there at 5:15.  I spent the next hour trying to find my hostel, which was not an easy task.  I started by going the wrong direction, then doubting myself and turning around back and forth a few times, wondering why the street names weren’t what they were supposed to be.  I finally hopped on a tram and asked if it went to the stop I needed, and a really friendly guy told me everything I needed to know about how to get there.  Even the tram driver made sure I got out and changed trams when I needed to.  From the stop it was still a bit of an ordeal finding the street with the hostel, but I went into a Kiosk and the Moroccan guys there were also extremely friendly and helpful, even going so far as to pull out a GPS device and making sure they were sending me in the right direction.  I finally found the hostel and checked in, the woman who owns the place with her husband giving me the run-down about the hostel and things to do and see in Antwerp—also extremely friendly.  So my first impression of Antwerp was that the people were extraordinarily nice.  It reminded me of the Midwest United States only this friendliness seemed even more genuine. 

I got a call from Connie just as I got settled into my room, and she said she’d just finished work and would be going back to her hotel, a big Hilton near the town’s cathedral square.  I told her I’d head over there and call her when I arrived, as it would be about a thirty minute walk and that was how much time she needed.  As I walked the distance, I could feel my mood beginning to rise, the frustration of trying to find the hostel now behind me.  Whenever I’m in a city I haven’t been to before I think of a commercial I saw once on CNN International, when they were promoting their network with a bunch of lines about how they understand the life of a business traveler.  One of the lines was, “We understand that buzz you get when visiting a new city for the first time” and that stuck with me ever since because it’s really very true.  There’s a special feeling you get when you’re in a new place.  It’s like you’ve just added another part of the world to your range of experiences. 

And Antwerp certainly seemed like a valuable part of the world to experience.  I’d heard about how multicultural Brussels is, but Antwerp must be no less so.  Just walking through the streets you could look around and find nearly every shade of color a human being can have.  From blonde to black, Asian to Indian, burqa-clad Muslims and Hasidic Jews with their curls, it seemed nearly every race and culture on Earth was represented.  It’s certainly the most diverse place I’ve ever been to. 

So I was feeling really good when I reached the cathedral square and gave Connie a call, then walked around trying to find her until she finally spotted me.  We hugged and headed off to a nearby restaurant, and right away it was like the last six years had gone by in a split second.  Connie is a very talkative person and extremely easy to get along with, so I felt comfortable right away.  We were both on the same page at that point and nearly the entire time I was there in terms of what we felt like doing, and the first thing we both wanted was a nice delicious Belgian beer.  Connie had been there a few days already, and she’d been there on business before as well, so she not only knew where to go, but exactly what beer to order.  I basically followed her lead the whole time, and of the dozen or so beers we ended up drinking in total, only one was less than spectacular and it was one she’d never tried before. 

We sat outside at a restaurant near the cathedral and placed our order with the extremely friendly waitress.  We had two beers there and split an order of penne pasta, and just sat and talked as the sun went down, getting each other caught up on what each of us has been doing these last six years.  She’s currently working for a company called Greif that’s an industrial packaging company, and living in Columbus, Ohio where their headquarters are.  She’s living in a condo there with a long-term boyfriend she’s known since she was a teenager and with whom she’s been on-again-off-again ever since, and it’s probably only a matter of time before they get married. 

I also heard about a couple of the other Autumn Lane crew, mostly Kim she was Connie’s closest friend out of all of us.  I was always extremely fond of Kim, thinking she was exactly the kind of personality I’d want to marry if I were to marry, but I never tried anything with her because I never got the feeling she had any interest.  She’d been a virgin in college too, which made me feel like less of a freak for being so, but that’s obviously no longer the case.  She’s now been in a relationship with a big black man in his mid-thirties for several years, which is very odd to think about but I suppose I should be happy for her. 

Once we finished the dinner and two beers we left in search of another place, and I suggested we leave the touristy area and try some of the places the woman at the hostel had recommended.  We took the metro back over to the other side of town and stopped at the first place we came to which was a bit of a dive but naturally the beer was still good.  From there we went back to the hostel just to check a map they had there with the locations of good bars clearly marked on the map.  We had to walk about fifteen minutes south to get to the area where they would supposedly be, and although we eventually found a place I’m not sure it was what we were actually looking for as I couldn’t place any of the surrounding street names to the map. 

This place was crowded but there was an open table outside which we took.  We had two beer at that place while continuing to chat about whatever she was inclined to chat about, mostly her relationship and the relationships of other people she knows.  She must have been very comfortable with me because she told me some deeply personal things—thing I wouldn’t dream of recounting in this journal—but it always feels good to be trusted enough to be told things like this.  It was very pleasant overall, though whenever I’m in a conversation about relationships I frequently feel waves of profound sadness wash over me, as this is a dimension of life that has just never been open to me.  Connie asked me if I’d ever had a long-term relationship and I confessed that I still hadn’t—that the issues I had in college were still very much with me today.  She didn’t know what to say to that but I can hardly blame her, and the conversation shifted quickly anyway as it tended to happen with her quite frequently.  I was quite glad that she was such a talkative person, as I’m very much not so she picked up all the slack that I normally leave.  Of course I get much more talkative after a few beers, but so does she so most of the talking was done by her at all times.  But I like listening, and everything she had to say was interesting. 

After leaving that place we walked back towards the center of town and stopped into an Irish pub for what would be our last two beers of the night—the beers that would push us over the edge from buzzed to significantly drunk due to their size and strength.  The conversation got a bit less coherent and a bit more emotional as tends to happen, and my only strong recollection is what took place half-way through our last beer.  She said she hoped I didn’t mind that she’d been telling me such personal things, and I said I didn’t mind at all, but if we were going to be sharing deep dark secrets I could tell her mine.  Of course, my big secret is the most open fucking secret in the world, seeing as how it’s all over these journals and before I privatized certain entries anyone could have read and known all about.  If you’re reading this you’ve probably read the others so you already know what I told her.  When I’m drunk I tend to open up about it and she’s certainly not the first person I’ve told in my drunkenness about the side-effect of my virginity that keeps my strongest desires directed at younger girls.  (There I go again).  Her response was of course, “You need to get over that” and something about how girls that age aren’t ready and basically the obvious things that I already know quite well.  It wasn’t exactly what I expected, as she’d been telling me earlier about other peoples’ relationships that began when the girl was 16 or under and the guy was 20 or older, but I made it clear to her that I would never actually pursue a young girl and that it was their innocence that I found most beautiful and I would never want to take that away from anyone.  At that she pulled me closer to her and placed my head against her chest, stroking my hair in sympathy.  That was more like it.  I suppose the desire for sympathy is what drives me to tell people about this in the first place—that and just needing to know that other people won’t necessarily consider me a monster if they knew.  Connie certainly didn’t treat me any differently after that, although it’s not unlikely that she didn’t even remember it, as she told me the next day she didn’t remember getting back to her hotel. 

I remember well enough though, as my brain has a very high threshold when it comes to drunken memory loss, and while things certainly get blurry I almost never lose significant chunks of time.  We were stumbling back in the direction of her hotel, as she offered to just let me crash there instead of having to go back and find my hostel.  I couldn’t figure out where we were and I couldn’t read the names of the streets on my map because the text was just a black fuzz, but a taxi rolled by and we stopped it and got in.  The driver, whom it was no surprise turned out to be—you guessed it—extremely friendly, took her back to her fancy Hilton and me back to my ghetto hostel.  I stumbled back into my room where of course the other five beds were full of sleeping people (I always seem to be the last to get in and go to sleep at hostels) whom I’m sure I woke up when I came in. 

I had to get up a couple of times to relieve my bladder and chug more water, my head throbbing badly each time and I knew I was in for a bad hangover.  At one point I woke up and just couldn’t get back to sleep, having to endure the sound of snoring that one person in the room will inevitably do when sleeping at a hostel.  It was almost amusing rather than annoying, as literally 100% of the time I’ve ever stayed at a hostel there has been one person snoring loudly—even if there was only one other person in the room.  But luckily he woke up very soon and got his friends out of bed and before I knew it I was alone in the room. 

I kept waiting for the sun to rise, but the room remained as dark as it was when I got in, and over the course of several hours it began to dawn on me that the window next to my bed didn’t actually go to the outside.  I finally looked at the clock on my cellphone and say that it was 1:15 p.m. which blew my mind.  I forced myself up and into the shower, then got my stuff together and headed out in search of an internet café. 

I sent Connie an e-mail telling her to call me if she was awake and wanted to do something, then e-mailed some other people having to deal with the incredibly bizarre Belgian keyboard with nearly half the letters out of place, having to hit shift to make a period, and somehow no question mark to be found.  I felt like I was ten years old again having to hunt and peck for each letter or punctuation mark. 

Connie called me at 2:00, apparently having slept as long as I had and with an even worse hangover.  We agree to meet in front of the cathedral in an hour.  Still completely zonked out, I got there and we found each other.  We went to a nearby Italian place for a 3 p.m. pizza breakfast.  All that bread and cheese soaked up the remaining toxins quite nicely, and I felt much better afterwards although still with a slight headache and waves of nausea.  We agreed that the problem was not so much the quantity of beer we drank but the fact that we mixed up so many different types of beer.  But whatever, we were in Belgium and there are so many different varieties of amazingly good beer so I didn’t regret mixing it up.  I’d fully expected a hangover and a hangover is what I got.  It could have been worse. 

It was worse for Connie, who continue to suffer with a headache and bouts of nausea for the rest of the afternoon, which we spent just walking around and occasionally stopping somewhere to buy water or just sit down to rest.  Connie had planned to go to a couple of museums today but she said she gets panic attacks when she goes to museums hung over.  I thought that odd, but apparently there’s a history of panic attacks in her family and she started getting them often when she was hit by a car and badly injured during her first year of college.  She’d been able to sue the guy and got a large amount of money from it, but she always insisted that would trade all the money in a second to not have to go through that trauma.  And the effects are still with her, as she’s got some kind of metal brace in her leg and her knee really started to hurt after a couple hours of walking. 

We went to the zoo because it was supposedly very good, but we got there at 5 when it closed at 6 so it wouldn’t have been worth the entry fee, which at €31 might not have been worth it anyway even if we’d had the whole day.  So we just continued to walk around.  We walked down a road with dozens of jewelry shops which I think was part of some kind of diamond district as Antwerp or maybe all of Belgium is particularly involved in the diamond trade.  I couldn’t help but think about all the Africans who died to bring those diamonds there. 

We walked through a nice little park and then over to the river to look at a statue that had some significance I’d now forgotten, then back into town near the cathedral where we stopped at a café to begin drinking beer again, as it was now that time of day already.  Just as we began our beer a street musician came and played his violin in front of the cathedral, and we both considered how quintessentially European this was.  Sitting at a café outside a gothic cathedral, cobblestones as far as the eye can see, sipping on beer while a street musician performed—it couldn’t get any more European. 

We took our sweet time enjoying that beer, then got up to go somewhere else.  We stopped in a little gift shop so Connie could pick up some presents for people back home, and I was struck by a little statue in the entrance of a naked little boy holding his penis.  That was odd enough, but I then noticed along the wall a bunch of mini-figurines of the same statue, only the penis extended out into a corkscrew.  I said, “That is the most F-ed up wine opener I’ve ever seen” and the clerk smiled at me as just said, “It’s Belgium.”  He must have Americans making remarks about that corkscrew all the time, what with our prudish sensibilities.  I just wonder who buys that.  Who wants to open their wine bottle with a little boy’s prick? 

After that we found a bar she hadn’t been to before but which I think we both came to agree had the best atmosphere out of all of them.  We stayed there for three beers and had a really nice conversation that involved my discovering that she also has a deep love for Pink Floyd, and I proudly imparted to her my story of getting to see them at Live8, and talking about how deeply that experience changed me.  Whenever I tell that story I feel the residual echoes of the chills I got when I was actually there, so I always love to re-live the experience.  As I told her, after that I could never be completely miserable.  No matter what happens, my life will have been worth it because I got to have that experience. 

When we left that place, the bill the waitress gave me had omitted the first beer we’d had there, and Connie said it was up to me whether to tell her.  The waitress was—naturally—extremely nice, and we both really liked the place so I felt compelled to tell her about the other beer and she thanked me for my honesty.  The feeling of having done the right thing was well worth the extra few euros. 

We stopped at a nearby place that supposedly has the best French fries in Belgium, and Belgium supposedly has the best French fries in the world.  I didn’t think they were too extraordinary—they were just fries.  But Connie loves fries so I only picked at it while she ate most of them.  Neither of us were all that hungry after having eaten that giant pizza so late in the day.  But the conversation at the fry place was particularly notable, as it was the first time things got philosophical.  I was telling her about why I studied philosophy and how I’m still reading and writing philosophical things and I hope to eventually become a professor but right now I’m just building up life experience which should be extraordinarily valuable to my future philosophical career.  She not only approved of my life plan but seemed almost impressed with it, so naturally that felt good. 

The last place we went was actually the same restaurant we’d begun at the previous day, thus bringing everything full circle.  At that place the conversation got very political for the first and only time, as Connie is somewhat interested in politics but not enough to really follow the news, which she says is all biased anyway and she can never trust it.  She definitely supported Obama, but she said she never thought he was going to fix everything and voted for him mostly because McCain and Palin would have been a disaster.  I filled her in on everything Obama has been doing wrong, though we both agree that the criticism he gets from Fox News and the conservative media is way off-base. 

Things got even deeper when we somehow got on the discussion of having kids vs. adopting, and I said if I were to ever have kids I’d insist on adoption because I wouldn’t want to bring another life into a world that seems headed for a huge crisis.  She totally disagreed with my bleak assessment, saying that if we run out of one energy resource we’ll just find another one, and that humans are clever enough to keep civilization going pretty much indefinitely.  I didn’t agree with her, but it was nice to hear that perspective as I don’t get it very often.  Nobody likes to think about the unsustainable nature of industrial civilization, but whenever I get people to think about it almost everyone admits that we’re heading for a crisis of some kind.  But she doesn’t think so.  I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. 

After finishing our last beer I asked Connie if I could just crash in her hotel room, as the Hilton was right there and my hostel was all the way on the other side of town and I had to wake up super early anyway.  I’d luckily brought all of my things with me in my backpack when I left the hostel earlier (I packed very light for this trip) so it would be much more convenient if I could just get a few hours of sleep there and head out around 6.  She’d offered that the night before so of course I could, although we’d have to sleep head-to-toe as a kind of fidelity-to-her boyfriend thing, not that anything was going to happen between us anyway or that I would even try anything.  Neither of us are attracted to each other physically, so it’s hardly a betrayal.  If anything is a betrayal, it’s my writing about this publicly, but on the extremely beyond off-chance that her boyfriend ever reads this, I think it’s pretty clear that nothing wrong had been done. 

Before heading back we stopped at a Döner Kebab place, because no travel experience would be complete without a Kebab and I wanted something to soak up the alcohol.  Connie was content with the fries she’d had earlier so I just got one for myself and ate it in her hotel room.  When she got in bed she said fuck it—the head-to-toe thing was actually kind of silly.  It was a big enough bed and we were able to sleep next to each other with plenty of distance between us. 

I set my alarm for 5:45 but woke up fifteen minutes before that anyway and felt ready to go.  The kebab had done its work, as there wasn’t a trace of a hangover and all I felt was tired.  I got my stuff together and said goodbye to Connie, who had woken up on her own as well.  We agreed to meet again if she comes back to the continent while I’m still living her, and parted ways. 

The train ride back went very smoothly with no trouble at all on the changeovers.  It was even downright pleasant on the last leg of the journey, getting into Hannover under cloud and rain while listening to Enigma.  I haven’t had much social interaction or unique experiences in awhile, so I feel very glad to have done that.  We didn’t do much sight-seeing so it wasn’t like a typical travel experience, but even without seeing any particular sights I think I got a good feel for the city, and it’s definitely a really nice one.  Between the multiculturalism, the pure aesthetics of the buildings, and the delightful friendliness of the people, I might even go so far as to put Antwerp on my short list of favorite cities ever. 

As for Connie, it was just so nice to reconnect with someone from a former part of my life.  It helps to illuminate all the ways I’ve changed and all the ways in which I’ve stayed exactly the same.  But more than that, there’s just something deeply satisfying about bringing someone from a former life back into the current life for a moment.  All the thousands of people I’ve known and the hundreds of people I’ve known well enough and liked enough to want to keep in touch with are scattered all across this tiny globe, but they’re all still here and you can never be sure who you might see again.