The Tinting of Ghent

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Fluffy White Clouds and Blue Sky

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Brussels, Belgium – April 2013

I navigate the streets of Brussels with my eyes fixed on the pavement in front of me. I raise my eyes every so often to look for street signs. To be sure that I’m not lost. The sky is a uniform slate gray. The panic is lurking somewhere. It made a brief appearance on the plane ride. I forced myself to instigate a conversation with the gentleman sitting next to me. Tell me about yourself so I don’t think about myself. Please. He didn’t seem to notice my discomfort – the shaking hands clasped in my lap and the tense smile. Then again, people rarely do. He answered my questions about Belgium with unexpected enthusiasm. By the time the plane touched down, the panic had dissipated.

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I make my way to the Musée Magritte, which is an uphill walk from Grand Place. A couple of photos of the artist hang in the entryway. There’s something familiar in his expression. The sadness of life has not snuffed out the innocence. Magritte’s mother drowned herself when he was a young boy. I’m drawn to one of his recurring motifs – fluffy white clouds on blue sky. It’s childlike, whimsical, and somehow unsettling.

Groups of young schoolchildren follow their teachers from painting to painting. I’m unable to get close. Suddenly there are too many people. A quick jolt moves through me and the edges of my vision grow blurry. I hurry on ahead. The space in front of L’Empire des Lumières (The Empire of Light) is empty. I pause and let the image sink into my brain.

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The Empire of Light – Rene Magritte

Everything we see hides another thing. We always want to see what is hidden by what we see. – René Magritte

What is it that really brings about the darkness?

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Before I venture back out to the street, I stop in the bathroom to splash cold water on my face. The mirror makes me smile, but I’m not able to meet my eyes for more than a split second. When I was a kid, I used to freak myself out by staring in the mirror until I “saw” myself. I’m alive, I used to whisper over and over. For a few seconds, the dream of reality would fall away and I would be left with the being that inhabits this body. Myself. It was fascinating and terrifying.

If the dream is a translation of waking life, waking life is also a translation of the dream. – René Magritte

I walk back towards Grand Place, trying to keep a grip on myself. I feel disembodied, a phantom among the living. Breathe. Lift your eyes. Look at the others. Meet their eyes. It’s going to be okay. You’re one of them.

For most of my life, I was followed around by the leaden cloud of depression. In November of 2011, something unexpected happened. The black clouds rolled away to reveal an immaculate blue infinity. Another kind of abyss. I’m grateful that the self-loathing is gone. However, without something anchoring me down, I might float away. A few clouds are necessary to put things into perspective.

It would be easier if I knew what it is, exactly, that I’m afraid of. I’ve come to believe that there’s an undercurrent that sensitive people are picking up on. Some of my friends are experiencing the same debilitating level of vague anxiety. Something is wrong.

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At the end of the afternoon, I find myself at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, the world’s largest Art Deco structure. Storm clouds gather overhead, but I make a complete circle of the magnificent building before heading back to the guesthouse. Magritte and Art Deco. These artistic delights will tide me over for a while.

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On my last day in Belgium, a soft spring sun shines down. Grand Place is thronged with people enjoying the new warmth. I move among them in a calm oblivion. I simply feel good today. The intricate details of the architecture are illuminated. The windows of the Hotel de Ville become mirrors reflecting the remnants of cloud.

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*Image source for The Empire of Light: Wikipedia

The Anatomy of a Tourist Trap

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Brussels, Belgium – April 2013

It’s not hard to find the Mannekin Pis, the famous symbol of Brussels. Just head towards the perpetual crowd by the side of the road. I’ve read that the Mannekin Pis frequently tops the list of most overrated tourist traps and roadside attractions in Europe. In Europe, the roads are cobblestone and the tourist traps are hundreds of years old. This lends a seriousness to the experience that’s different from that of my childhood in America’s upper Midwest. Every year on our trips to northern Michigan, I’d stare out the window of our orange wood-paneled station wagon as it passed billboards announcing Mystery Spot, where water runs uphill; Call of the Wild Museum which shows heart-pounding  depictions of wildlife; and most intriguing, Sea Shell City (try saying that one quickly) which has a 500 pound man- killing clam. I can still hear my grandmother’s voice, what do you want to stop at that tourist trap for? The tone of her voice implied that no answer would ever be convincing, so my brothers and sisters and I remained silent.

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The Mannekin Pis is the size of an overfed rodent. His expression is probably meant to be mischievous, but to me it looks like one of profound relief. People come and go from the crowd, so that it never totally disperses. Obedient smiles of wonder light up their faces. A man frowns in concentration as he lines his expensive camera up for a shot. I’m the only person who’s giggling.

Tourist traps can be great fun if you realize that the joke is on you. I learned this when my brother Billy and I visited Sea Shell City as adults. It was nothing more than a shop that sold shells and other detritus of the sea, including the Crucifix Fish, a small fish skeleton that’s naturally shaped like a crucifix. Reinforcement from nature for those who need it. Each box came with a picture of Jesus and a prayer. The man-killing clam sat on a shelf and had a light bulb screwed into it. We almost got kicked out for laughing so loudly. However, we knew that Sea Shell City was a tourist trap. On a road trip to Tombstone, Arizona, an ancient local man told us that no visit to Tombstone was complete without a visit to the Hist-O-Rama. Billy and I sat amongst other tourists in a darkened theater and watched a beige mound decorated with houses, cowboys, and indians as it lit up with blinking lights and spun around on a turntable. Vincent Price’s sinister voice narrated the history of Tombstone to the accompaniment of recorded gunshots and screams. At one point the turntable got stuck for a few seconds, and then it broke free with a loud ping. The other spectators watched with rapt attention. Billy and I exchanged glances and bit our lips to keep from laughing out loud. At ourselves.

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I linger at this small crossroads and marvel. The waffle and chocolate shops have at least one weenie wagging effigy gracing their doorways or windows. Talk about an appetite killer. I take it all in with a huge smile. It’s kitsch overload like I haven’t seen in years. I’ve been to other so-called tourist traps in Europe – the Eiffel Tower, the Coliseum, Monmartre. However, if you take away the tacky souvenirs and the mobs of tourists, they are genuinely impressive.

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Kiddie corner from the statue is the Mannekin Pis pub. The neon sign includes a small silhouette of the statue. Sadly, it’s barely discernible in the daylight. I imagine that the draft beer dispensers are interesting. I peer inside, but a scowling bartender discourages me from venturing in further.

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On my last day in Brussels, I make one last lap around the old city and circle back to the Mannekin Pis. It’s a sunny day and the crowd is larger and more boisterous. The statue is cloaked in red and yellow finery. People jostle each other for a closer shot. I stand back and take photos of the unsuspecting spectators.

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