Sometimes when you want to write, you don’t know where to start. A good friend recently advised me to just start anywhere and write about anything. And thus is born a new segment of my blog. Welcome to Flash Back Friday where I tell you stories from past adventures. I do hope you appreciate my words, but also my photos. A very dear (yet antiquated) scrap-book is taking a beating to bring these images from the past to the present.
Greetings from Antwerp, Belgium – September 3, 2001
History Lesson or Fairy Tale? There once existed a giant. Now whether he was a giant of a man or truly the height of fantastical creation it is unclear. Regardless of his true stature, he was known as Antigone. He lived on the river just north of where I now find my residence. This river was the major waterway for travelers and merchants voyaging by boat. Realizing this, the giant always remained on shore as ships made their way to and from town. Holding out his giant hand, he awaited his toll for allowing a boat to pass unharmed. Very few boatmen failed to pay the toll, and those who did paid a far higher price.
After many years, a brave young man decided to put an end to the giant and his out stretched hand. He approached the giant in the night, quite as a church mouse, for he knew that to awaken the giant would mean his own death. As quickly as a man of traditional height could accomplish the task at hand… he removed the giant’s hand with a cleaver and threw it into the river. The young man was the town’s new hero, having released all travelers from the extra toll. And thus the town became known as Antwerpen, which roughly translated is Hand Throwing.
The flight over was smooth sailing, so to speak. I was seated in the front of the aircraft so I deplaned before the crowds could gather. Passport check: no line. Baggage claim: very little wait. Customs: waved through (this was still days before 9/11). My dear friend Dave: bouncing up and down on the other side of the customs gate. I couldn’t ask for a better arrival.
Even before unpacking, or seeing Dave’s apartment for that matter, I was on foot alone in a place where I understood little of what was written or spoken. Dave took me for lunch at a traditional Belgian café and then dropped me off in the town of Mechelen for 3 hours while he finished his workday. I walked around the city, had a coke at a café, window shopped along the market street and sat on the bridge of the Grotbrug. So that I couldn’t possibly get lost, we arranged to meet at the Cathedral steps, the spire of which could be seen from miles away in any direction. The chimes rung out ever half-hour so not having a watch did not pose a problem in keeping track of time.
Then it was off to Ikea to purchase a few items for the bedroom I had yet to see. Dave wanted me to pick out a dresser or something to put my clothes in since the room I was about to inhabit for three months had only a mattress on the floor and no closet. We found two small blue dressers and a mismatched closet door on discount, which now serves as a tabletop quite nicely. That and a funky edged blue and green mirror comprise my bedroom furnishings. The view from my wall-sized window is of an alley, built of stone and bricks hundreds of years ago, ivy growing up the walls in spurts. The cathedral spire of Antwerp rises into the air just beyond the alley on the right. Rooftops are dotted with ironwork and the occasional tower room. It is a fantasy view and I look forward to sitting by that window as I type the pages that will become my stories.
But I’m getting ahead of myself, because we’ve just finished shopping and still haven’t made it to Dave’s flat. Fighting jet lag, I accompany Dave to his rehearsal for KIZMET that evening. The rehearsal hall is in a community center in Brussels, about 30 minutes away by car. Also in the community center is a small pub, frequented by the actors before, during, and after rehearsal. When the director calls a break, everyone makes their way to the pub for a glass of wine or spirits and only when the glasses are drained do they return to the hall for the second half of rehearsal. Dave says that most rehearsal spaces are equipped with such pubs. It seems food and spirits accompany many parts of the daily routine in Belgium.
Even though it is late, and I have every reason to be in bed hours earlier, upon returning home Dave and I go for a walk and a beverage so that he can give me a few directions and pointers for the next day. As we round the corner at the end of his building and step out into the plaza, I stop in my tracks and forget myself for the briefest moment. “You mean I get to live here, right here, for the next 3 months?” I ask as if I don’t know the answer. Dave’s response, “I told you I lived in the middle of historic Antwerp.”
I will not do justice to the site I saw, but I will try to build it into view. The plaza is a large oval completely paved in cobblestone, woven into patterns of bends and swirls. Several streets lead out of the plaza in winding directions. At the heart of the plaza is a statue writhing with bodies carved out of stone. During the day it is also a fountain of unimaginable beauty. Along one entire side of the plaza is a building covered in flags, numbering close to fifty I imagine but have yet to count. Other sides of the plaza are lined with stores and cafés, pubs and homes – all small buildings attached to each other with the most ornate ironwork and window designs I have ever seen.
Incredible stonework and the occasional carving decorate every building. Horse and Buggy carts are positioned around the market, awaiting a passenger. And there, on the corner opposite where we stand, is the Grand Cathedral seen from my bedroom window. Over 350 feet in the air, the Cathedral took 100 years to build. It was the center of life and thus, this very cobblestone plaza where I now find myself was the central gathering place for all walks of life throughout history. Napoleon walked here. The artist, Peter Paul Rubens, walked here. Rulers throughout history walked here. And now, I walk here.