Copyright 2018 Tom Briggs
Lieve and I boarded our train for Brussels at Antwerpen Centraal, a cathedral-like station of medieval styling with a vast steel and glass domed ceiling. The intricate stonework and painstaking detailing seem to have been created as payment to the god’s, perhaps for an eternal train pass. It’s immense size and grandeur render all within its corridors into frantic ants. An exalted and cavernous entity where I half- expected a raven or bird-of-prey to swoop down from one of the sarcophagus-like window fittings. A gargantuan renewal and extension was completed a few years ago that has resulted in a pleasing melding of the old and the new. A great many boutiques and fine eateries are along its two level route. No doubt one of the most impressive train stations in all of Europe.
The station’s prodigious depth was expressed when we had to take three very long gleaming stainless steel escalators down from street level to board our train. I still cannot figure out how it’s possible to descend halfway to China (ok, maybe a third) and exit from tunnel darkness into the light at street level, though come to think of it, I vaguely remember seeing two people that looked strangely like Lieve and me, going up on another escalator during our descent. This station apparently has properties that occur only in transcendent realms.
We soon were passing a wintery grey and uninspiring quilt of cities and farms. The stretch from Mechelen, (about half-way) to Brussels, was a visual statement that has probably not changed since cities existed. The nearer to Brussels, the more defacement of property, the more bums on the streets, the more displays of shoddiness and dereliction, in buildings, autos and signage. A depressing scene to say the least. But it makes Brussels no different than most other cities when entering by train. However, Antwerp’s poorest enclaves thankfully don’t come close to what I saw. All this was in stark contrast to entering Brussels Centrum by car. Then one is surrounded by the grandeur of European architecture and style. Palaces of wealth and power, both historical and new, rise like a forest of opulence and grandiosity over a perspective-vanishing stretch of Regentlaan(D) / Boulevard du Régent (F)
Brussels main train station, Brussels Midi Zuid, was a blur of humanity, giant lighted schedule boards and automated ticket machines. Along several walkways filtering out from the main area were dozens of fast-food restaurants and boutiques. A sign on the floor warned to be wary of pick-pockets as we adroitly zigzagged our way about through a continuous crisscrossing of hurried pedestrian traffic. I counted five thousand, forty-nine heads bobbing on top of mostly anoraks, usually neutral in color. (just kidding) A few homeless and the requisite para-commandos on patrol, rounded out the human element. We had lunch at a veggie-joint called Greenway. Lieve and I both had a very good dressing-laden veggie-wrap. A wrap so thick one could risk a dislocated jaw from eating it in a normal sandwich way. A knife and fork were the ticket.
When we entered the train bound for Lille, all was quiet, with only a few other passengers on board. The interior was in fairly new condition, was litter-free and had soft comfortable seats. I looked forward to the next forty-five minutes of conversing with Lieve, gazing at the passing countryside or reading. A place and time to relax and think serene thoughts. Enjoy the romance of train travel. Such a short-lived expectation. A naive notion that was felled like a house of cards. Our car was soon inundated with the smiling, laughing, rosy-cheeked sons and daughters of privilege, many of them toting ski equipment. In no time, every seat was taken. It might as well have been a city bus. The romance went out the window. Or at least the sense of relaxation.
Oh, I could still talk with Lieve, read a book or look out the window, but something had changed. Maybe if it were a crowd of touristy seniors? Of forlorn refugees? Or of hooded young street blacks? Would I then have longed for the relative merits of an inundation of twenty-something’s who had everything? Maybe this, this romance was never possible to begin with. Maybe it was just my imagination running away with me. I might’ve been thinking of trains in old black and white movies from seventy years ago. Because this seventy year old was longing for re-entry into a past unencumbered with the reality that it once possessed. Now that illusionary past glistens like a diamond against this, this time and world. This train. It beckoned with a beguiling smile, and said: That’s when trains sounded like trains. That’s when they looked like trains and smelled like trains. And moved like trains. The landscape went by slowly. The conductors shouted the next stop. “Willowby, next stop Willowby” I’m damn well certain that I would’ve been as discontented or more precisely mal-contented about a whole slew of things had I been on one of those trains in 1947, at age seventy. Back in my day only counts for my generation.
Lille, Capital of French Flanders
While we had visited Lille a few times in the past, we had always arrived by car, so this was our first time entering the city by train. The Lille station looked contemporary. I found out later that it was completed in 1993. The building is a grey, soulless, formless heap of abstraction. A concrete and steel pile of dung disguised as a railway station. A visual cacophony with ugly site lines everywhere. No matter where you looked, nothing was pleasing to the eye. Only a government financed project could produce such ugliness. Such alien form. Every square inch of the place said to me that its designers and planners were well-pleased with this monument to their collective egos and vision. Most unfortunate that the proletarians who use the station would not ever get it.
Is it possible that a group of architects could be so unimaginative and so blind to aesthetic form or is it that the blueprints had to conform to the abstractionist post-modernist post-taste parameters of the Post-Christian-Post-Reason-Post-Sanity- State? There was a coldness to the place that made the February temperature of two celsius balmy by comparison. But that didn’t matter because if the station at first gave the appearance of being indoors, it was nothing of the kind. In fact, it may very well have been a degree or two colder than outside. We saw many warning type signs and I asked Lieve what they meant. Translated from the French, the signs read: You are required to wear a sullen, blank expression at all times. Failure to comply with this mandate may result in a fine or penalty. Luckily, as is my habit in such an environment, I was already wearing such an expression. Lieve tells me that I wear it more than I think.
Fortunately, amid this sea of alien formlessness, was a beautiful piano. There, a young lady of about fifteen sat, flawlessly playing what sounded to me like difficult classical and contemporary pieces. What a dichotomy, as beauty and form and rhythm and composition and taste and drama filtered through the pavilions and waiting areas and walkways and causeways and escalators of grey steel and concrete, all of which were devoid of those qualities. It reminded me that this train station experience could’ve been infinitely worse if Eminem-like sounds had been piped in through the speaker system.
A barren area of some three city square blocks was at the ground floor level as one exited the escalator. This vast, treeless, mindless concrete stretch of nothingness apparently served as a pedestrian mall of some sort. One could observe, going up the opposite escalator, an area at ground level of some fifty meters long by twenty five meters wide. This monstrosity served as some kind of pool, of perhaps ten centimeters in depth. Its water was a horrid rust colour and was decorated with all manner of debris. In the station’s near vicinity were tall buildings of an alien aspect, quite possibly designed by the same architects. No need to elaborate on that.
Ironically, only half a kilometer away (or about one hundred and fifty years away), is the other Lille train station, the Gare de Lille Flandres. This is a magnificent Neo Classical train station built somewhere between the mid and late nineteenth century. This is a building with heart and soul. There is love of craft in every brick and girder. It retains a quiet majesty and timeless beauty. A dignified and proud symbol of a by-gone time. This station is highly conducive to human beings who feel things and appreciate grandeur, visual harmony and great architecture. It invites you in, whether or not you are aware of it. If all this makes me a philistine, so be it. We only spent a few minutes there. Too bad we didn’t bring our cameras.
Lille Centre Ville has hundreds of beautiful mid-to-late nineteenth century buildings of ornate design. Wonderful and charming neo-classical structures of Beaux Arts and Baroque styling. Many painted in soft yellow or tan tones. Of course, while these buildings convey a past richness and glory, rats were still a daily menace while they were being built. I think about such things when I criticize the present too much! It also has an endless supply of boutiques and shops where corporate clothes are bought by the hordes of twenty-something’s who come to Lille as if part of an orchestrated avalanche. After all, this is a university town. Thousands upon thousands, most not varying in age by more than five or six years, converge in the center of the city on weekends. A smattering of homeless, usually accompanied by a dog, the inevitable Romanian beggars, or mendicants, no doubt trained at the Romanian College of Begging, a squad of four uzi-toting para commandos ostensibly there to protect everyone from terrorism, and hundreds of cafe/restaurant-goers bent on an hour or two of small talk, big talk, gossip, and other salacious verbal morsels, over latté, Sauvignon or Kronebourg 1664. This diversified mix rounded out the human environment.
Lille has many terrific cafés and terraces in the centre ville area. On the street where we’ve visited a few times in the past, there are some twelve to fifteen terraces, usually filled with happy people. It’s much more Parisian in character than tourist. Luckily, there weren’t too many other seventy year old Americans in attendance! Lieve and I used to eat at a restaurant on this street called Le Chicorée, which is still there. One day around twelve years ago, Lieve had asked me to make a reservation for two people at our favourite table, table forty-nine. I approached the person behind the counter, using as many French words as possible, which was three. The rest was in English, which was not understood. Both languages were accompanied by hand gestures by which I tried to indicate that table forty-nine was upstairs. That section of the restaurant was off-limits during that time of day. This person then said something that indicated that he would check with another person. A minute later, I’m vainly explaining all over again in my three word French and useless English to this higher-up that I would like to reserve table forty-nine. So he’s nodding his head in a tentative way that suggests to me that he doesn’t know what-in-hell I’m talking about.
But then he gives me a half-smiling look of assurance, which communicated to me that he somehow miraculously understood me. Indeed, I thought he was going for a pen and reservation book. Some five minutes later, in comes a third person, very well dressed. Very boss-looking. This boss-looking individual wore an expression and countenance that said authority, experience and stature, if not wisdom. So I went through my well-rehearsed plea for the third time. He is only speaking French, mind you. To my utter amazement, this boss-looking guy very confidently-like grabs a reservation book and writes in my reservation. I am delighted and like a boy with a toy, I scamper back to where Lieve was waiting and proudly give her the good news, while describing the delightful time I had in arranging things. The following day we arrived at Le Chicorée at the appointed time and forty-nine tables that we didn’t reserve were ready. True story.
Return Trip I had to use the station restroom, but discovered that there was a charge of seventy-five euro-cents. I’m sorry, I don’t pay to open my fly., unless I offer to pay. It’s an insult, otherwise. So I determined to find a no-fee-pee-place. After crossing two streets in heavy traffic, I entered the Ibis Hotel, on the opposite corner from the station entrance-way, passing a heroin addict curling in embryo formation on the sidewalk right in front. After a five minute search, I found the restroom, only to discover that a room key-card was needed for entry. Who could blame the Hotel for such precautions? What with long-haired seventy-year-old well-dressed Americans roaming the grounds?
So I exited and re-crossed the street, heading west. I soon found an appropriate concrete corner. Sufficiently hidden, this had to be the vilest nook in Belgium. An epicentre of filth. A veritable shit-hole central. I reconsidered, and started walking. As I passed some forty meters under the darkly monolithic train trestle, a rusting red and white sign announced: This area is zoned for mugging. Enter at your own risk. The street was cobble-stoned and filled with litter. After another hundred meters or so, I entered a dingy tavern where a few haggard’s lingered over drinks and shattered dreams. I saw toilet on a door, then entered. I almost fell down a flight of stairs, which began immediately and without warning. Into a solid black darkness I descended where I searched for the toilet. I felt somehow shanghaied, half expecting a club over the head. Miraculously I found the john and a light switch. The only light in this…..place. My business done, I then had to feel my way out in the black abyss. I offered pay the barmaid, but she kindly refused. All this for my thick-headed unwillingness to adapt to the changing times in which it goes without saying that one’s pocket will be picked here, there and everywhere.
We boarded our train without a problem, and were soon on our way. Then I saw through the train window at Brussels Nord, alabaster and olive-colored whores in lighted store windows advertising their voluptuousness in a slum where any light, any color, any promise of pleasure, seemed a vain temporary distraction from drudgery. But I guess the pimps must love it. And of course the Johns. I saw a giant banner that advertised: Forty Third Annual International Pimps Convention. Brussels Sharitoné April 12-14. It made perfect sense in this European bastion of conventions. That’s it. Hey, you give me all of this grey steel and concrete and grey skies and grey-clad denizens and grey silvery rainy wind and grey food and I’m going to write grey. Color is for another day. And for another, more imaginative writer. Gratitude? I had plenty of it for this delightfully grey day. I’m in my element of intoxicating sourness on a day like today.