observe, lament, repeat

Posted on January 21, 2009

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After finishing the Best American Travel Writing 2007, it occurs to me that this seems to be the inevitable credo of all travel writers. Visit somewhere unique, describe it with reverence and wonder, lament the fact that it is becoming a) severely commercialized or b) inauthentic or c) extinct, and then on to the next location. This sounds dismissive, but it’s really just inevitable. If I want to go home to Boston and eat moules frites while drinking a delicious Belgian trappist beer at the Publick House (and believe me, I do), I can hardly complain if the inhabitants of Bruges want to speak English, play pool, listen to American pop rock from ten years ago, and drink miller high life. In fact, I ought to expect it.

Bruges actually seems pretty safe from the Generic City Syndrome that I felt during my brief time in, say, Antwerp, despite its 100 different hotels. It’s ravishingly beautiful and the architecture is incredibly well-preserved and aside from the one bar I just made fun of, there seems to be a relative dearth of USA-themed nightlife.

I arrived in Antwerp in the afternoon, the first of 3 Belgian cities I intended to hit that day, and looking over the wikitravel page, the only thing that caught my eye was a give-take shop, where you could freely leave or take any items. I decided to go for a stroll, try to find said shop, and then hop on over to G(h)(a/e)n(d/t)…by which I mean Gent, Gend, Ghent or Gant, depending on your whim at the moment. Or your language of choice.

Antwerp looks nice. It looks like a city. It has many large buildings and parks and people. I strolled towards the commercial center first, towards a beautiful classical looking building looming overhead many blocks away. I arrived to find that below the frieze of angels or greek messengers or whathaveyou sat the United Colors of Benneton. Oh. See first paragraph.

I turned back, still excited to be in a new city, and blundered through the diamond district, which is enormous. Let me tell you something, Antwerp has diamonds and it wants you to know that it has diamonds. It also has a lot of hasidic jews, though I didn’t see any signs about that. I felt a little uncomfortable watching the well-heeled Hasids and smartly-suited Indians light up their cigarettes out on the diamond-encrusted sidewalks. Extreme luxury can be beautiful but it seems the older I get (I know, I’m quite young) the less I can look at it without immediately thinking of the necessary corollary of poverty. Soon I forgot the whole thing because I was chuckling at the seriously made-up-sounding Institute of Gemmology. Note: the sidewalks here are not actually diamond-encrusted.

Leaving the diamond district I set off for the give-take store, walking past the train station and along side the brand new and badly needed Diamond and Jewelry Shopping Centre (I kid you not), for a good half mile before arriving at…the street past the one I was looking for. It soon became clear that the street I was looking for, and presumably the barter shop as well, was gone, replaced by the aforementioned centre. In retrospect it occurs to me that by fully circumventing the centre I could have maybe found the shop, but I did try this and found only dead ends and hotels. Though, as my mom can tell you after having seen me look for something in the refrigerator, I am not always the most thorough seeker.

I set off in an arbitrary direction, hoping for a Belgian beer before my train to Gent, but every bar seemed to contain only a group of five or six middle-aged men clustered around a table. Call me unadventurous but it didn’t seem like a welcome environment for a scruffy young American. After walking a few more blocks I was in a largely immigrant area, and after noting a check cashing storefront selling bootleg videos and hair extensions, I surmised that I was in the neighborhood the wikifolk had warned me away from. I chided myself for latent racism and then immediately saw a sign declaring that I’d been correct. Maybe I should have been chiding the wikipedians, or the universe.

Defeated by Antwerp, I headed back to the central station, lest I miss the train and be forced to spend another hour there. The station sits on one end of a large open square, directly across from the glowingly new (and literally glowing) SAS Radisson hotel. It was dusk, and the Radisson’s bright colors, rounded, irregular surfaces, and klieg-syle lighting made it look like the headquarters of a powerful cartoon villain. Looking back and forth between the heavily scaffolded, beautiful yet aging train station to the shiny, cheery, corporate fortress it was hard not to feel weighed upon by the obvious and pessimistic metaphors cornering me at every turn. I’ve played enough tower defense games online to know which of those two towers is winning.

I gave up on positivity and walked inside, into the high-ceilinged, painstakingly-arched, grandfather-clocked Antwerpen-Centraal Station. Luscious blue evening light poured down from fans of windows far overhead. People scuttled by. My mind finally just shut up.

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