Better in Belgium
Remember the children’s book “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” where Alexander says he’s going to move to Australia? Remember how he talks about it like a place where nothing bad ever happens? That if he could just get to Australia, there would be no more bad days? That’s how I felt about Belgium.
After my bicycle tour in Provence I took a train to Gent, Belgium to visit a friend I’d met on my trip to Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam. First stop: real frites at a tiny frikot. They were exceptionally crispy on the outside and delightfully soft on the inside. I’d never had a fry with such a distinction between the inner and outer layers. I already knew Belgium was famous for frites, waffles, and chocolates as opposed America that’s famous for junk food, guns, and a terrible president. And after that first frite I wondered if everything was better in Belgium.
The next day my friend and I walked into town, honing in on quintessential European cuteness. The canals got narrower, the buildings older, and the flower boxes more colorful. My friend decided that it was time for him to finally see the famous Gent Altarpiece by Hubert and Jan van Eyck. I’d studied this painting in art history, never imagining I’d see it in person. And yet, we walked into a square, into a church, paid a few Euros, and stood in front of history. It was that easy to be in the face of beauty. We walked along the canals as I oohed and aahed over how charming it all was. “It’s like being in a Disney movie. I can’t believe you live here.” He laughed and pointed out that Belgium has its problems, too. But in the typical American fashion of not following politics outside of our own sphere, I didn’t see that. I only saw the primary-colored buildings lined up like crayons in a box. Frites, waffles, and chocolate. Bicycles everywhere. I ordered an iced coffee and the waitress brought me a blended, slightly coffee-flavored drink topped with whipped cream and a cookie and pink marshmallow on the side. Even the coffee was magical. I stumbled into the very candy shop I’d hoped to find. I bought a Cuberdon candy, a Gent favorite traditionally bit into and stretched, turning the gel filling to a tiny thread. We sat by the river overlooking a castle eating candy. To me, it was laughably perfect. I couldn’t believe it was a real place with real people. No racism, sexism, or children in cages. For two days I would take the escape.
That night my friend had gotten free VIP tickets to the Gent Jazz festival, headlined by Joan Baez. So, like my four days in Provence, for four hours we lived like kings. Pink bubbly. Gin and tonics in crystal glasses. A buffet of fish, tortellini, orzo salad, pork cheeks, crispy potatoes, and steak and mashed potatoes we went back for three times. My friend strutted around, “We’re in the VIP!” I knew I was living in a fantasy, yet it was actually happening. Like Provence, for that time, it was real. I was dressed a little casually in pants and t-shirt, but when I put on my denim jacket I looked like all the other Belgian women in little denim jackets. For a moment I was one of them. But Joan Baez wouldn’t let me forget what lie outside this perfect little city.
She sang hits of the 60s and 70s, “the Boxer” and “Imagine,” as well as gospel hymns the Belgians swayed along to. It was a bit odd, that swaying from a people I imagined may not know what the hymns were about. What was also odd was that I expected—after decades of singing songs of love, peace, and protest—Joan to look tired. She’d marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. How else could a singer of social justice feel in 2019’s America but tired? I would have been exhausted. Only she didn’t look tired. She looked sort of calm and resolute. Gentle eyes and a closed mouth, not pursed or smiling, that reminded me of Natalie Goldberg’s quiet tenacity. She had a measured persistence. Some way of facing the struggles that made her believe someday they would get better.
One of the times I cooed over perfect Belgium to my friend he pointed out that what Belgians don’t have is the irrational hope of Americans: the belief that one can “just do it” against all odds. Charge it! Student loans full speed ahead! Work for yourself! In America, anyone can be an inventor or a reality TV star. Belgians didn’t have that dream. And there was something about the lack of that big, wide open dream that was a little sad.
Maybe not as many bad things happen in Belgium as in America. But maybe some bad things happen. So on my last morning in town leaning against an ancient stone wall looking at a castle eating a Belgian chocolate, I recalled my own beautiful dream. It was what got me to Belgium.