Ghent, Belgium – April 2013
Travel is unpredictable. Any and every little thing can tint your experience.
It’s late morning and I’ve just arrived in Ghent, a thirty minute train ride from Brussels. My stomach is full of waffles. A restful night of sleep is behind me. It’s my last full day in Belgium and the chill and gloom of the past couple of days have dissipated. Spring sunrays beckon.
The tram driver, a gristly man with a gray ponytail, refuses to sell tickets to those of us who don’t have coins for the machine. We exit the tram and discuss our options. The center is really too far to walk to. The only thing we can do is buy something in the train station to get coins for change.
“I want to go to Antwerp today, too,” a young girl says with an annoyed sigh. “I don’t have time for this. If they don’t want me to visit, I’m leaving,” She waves and rushes back to the train station. The others nod. Bruges is only a half an hour away. When we get into the station, they head for that train. I buy a coffee and walk back to the tram stop alone.
The tram snakes through the nearly deserted Sunday morning streets. The atmosphere in Ghent is supposed to be more authentic than in Bruges. Less touristy. After the encounter with the tram driver, my certainty wavers. But I can’t judge an entire city by one old grouch. The tram arrives at Korenmarkt, so I jump off.
An imposing castle next to a quiet canal. The contrast between the massive walls and tranquil canal are unique. One of the downsides of traveling extensively in Europe is that it can make one blasé about castles and churches. My brain has reached the point of history saturation. I rarely enter such edifices anymore. These days, I prefer to feel a place. Watch, listen, and move my feet over the streets.
The cafes are half full. The language I hear is Flemish. Souvenir shops are so discreet as to be unnoticeable. No bumping into postcard racks here. Shop owners tend their displays, looking up to smile as I pass. The incident with the tram driver recedes. I walk a few steps, stop, stare at the intricate details in the architecture, and then repeat the process until I come to Graslei, which merits three whole laps. In case I missed something the first two times. Little tourist boats putter up and down the canal. I sit on an empty bench alongside and watch them pass.