The Waking Dream of Belgium 1/12/08

In Belgium, sitting beside a small table laden with empty bottles, dirty glasses, cigarettes, cards, books and maps, scribbling on a notepad. Glowing over my shoulder, the low wattage bulb of the stove casts my shadow onto the page. I wake up to another morning in another country; another day of possibilities. We may ramble through Brussels, diving from the street into a local pub, sauntering through the city park, digressing from the travel plan of the afternoon, the museum or the famous cathedral. Laurence Sterne wrote something like "digression is the soul of wit." But that's not exactly accurate. I'm combining writers, Shakespeare's note on brevity and Sterne's love of digression, but Sterne did believe digressions provide the loudest voice for the author, the best connection with the reader, the lifeline into the world, the hand reaching out from the page and grabbing at your throat to choke you out. I was reminded of Sterne recently as he was named in Ray Bradbury's Farenheit 451, a serious novel with a certain levity pertaining to the cold and hollow future of a life without art. Books, namely, but all of art, all sense of truth in life, of discovery, of human expression gets squashed. People in the future have lost the will or want to ask questions, to study life, to try and find out “Why?” It reminded me of an Ayn Rand novel, Anthem, perhaps, with mechanical characters and authorial warnings to watch how you proceed into the future. Not the playful but grave storytelling of the Martian Chronicles, where man inexpertly and obliviously destroys the civilizations of both the Earthlings and the Martians, as if such destruction were an inevitable ending for a species with our nature and disposition. But in Fahrenheit 451 a clear distinction is made between those who fight for truth and those who succumb, swimming in the meaningless vacuum created by what authority may be. Mankind is divided, with a clear good and evil. Sanity appears insane and ignorance taken for wisdom.

Why do I hearken back to novels of social unrest by Bradbury while in a hotel room in Brussels waiting for my roomies to wake up and get our tourism going? Maybe the image of Guy Montag surfaced in my sleep, bubbled up from the pools of my subconscious, and waited first in line to see its grand day in my wakeful consciousness. Maybe I'm anxious because of a lull in productivity in my writing and there's a correlation in my mind tying what I'm doing (or not doing--producing) to an artistic apocalypse. Or maybe, in this foreign land where I can't even come close to speaking the language, I feel as an outcast, a strange outsider who at any moment may slip up, make a mistake, and ruin his chances for survival. Like Guy Montag, I tiptoe through these streets, past the many bars where Flemish and French abounds, around the flocks of children wanting nothing from me but to know I won't hurt them, and they aren't even aware or don't show it that they want the safety, every time past the French girl at the front desk with pointed vampire teeth, clutching the book in my jacket, the travel guide to Brussels, against my body, knowing if it drops from my hands to the ground I'm busted: bring in the patty wagon call the hounds stamp his forehead with skulls and bones, this aimless American pissed us off let's tie him to a tree and stone him to death.

I find it stunning, sometimes, how the mind can wander, can fabricate a situation and invest it with verisimilitude. I know for sure that people in Belgium, all people really, are friendly by nature, even if I don't speak any of the languages of the Bruxiolles (Dutch, French, German). Another thing in common: they love surrealism in art, and--so do I! We've found an affinity. Art mirrors life and life is all out of whack. I mean, have you ever dreamt? Those strange imaginings you see each night are proof of a distorted existence. Your life flashes by and you believe in illusions, in motion pictures in all dimensions, the gaze you perceive, a lens, a filter through which irregularities and abnormalities become the soup of the day--the soup du jour. But look into that briny broth and watch the greasy bubbles bound and sway around each other--it may remind you of a scene you saw once (you were dreaming--you are dreaming, now). Once when you were five you cut your hand on the spigot in the bathtub and bled into the water and, when the red viscosity dispersed and went colorless again, you had an idea. That idea dug like a pile driver deep into your psyche, and it flashed back up when you were twelve, you squeezed the tube of toothpaste so hard that it shot out into the bathroom, onto your leg. The cream that spat out looked like it could melt right into your thigh, as if the two were of one substance, cream white and Caucasian. Then, while you're sipping on soup in Antwerp, the chicken broth made you stop and you had a waking dream. Your mind traveled through the bubbles in the soup and you were in your head, back at age five, and twelve, and twenty-three. This right before your friend commented on the thinness of Europeans and, like the erudite you are, you proposed a hypothesis stating external influences on individuals in a skinny, or fat American, society.

In all these pages it's hard to say anything about Belgium except that it's not snowing in January; the beer is sweet; I've yet to eat a waffle and the train ride from Holland is stuck in my mind. I see these Bruxoilles doing their jobs--working in bars to the din of techno music, checking tickets on the train--tall, blue politie showing presence in the streets.

On the way from Amsterdam to Brussels, we took the Eurorail and had a pleasant little jaunt. I'll be okay if I don't ever ride on a European train again. My memories are laden with and enhanced by these train rides.

That first trip to Europe, with my three dear friends, we spent about half our damn time riding trains. We rolled on through the countryside, noting the kinds of garbage and debris lining the rails, watching the industrial smoke stacks pluming out blackness. The trains provided pause to reflect and review, lulled us into a transitive state of gentle rocking, the track and the debris causing the gyrations of the car as we barreled over the refuse. The constant white noise, coupled with the vision of passing objects, sounded like a blur of a tree or barn flying by outside the window. A whisk of air, a breath of life from the outside, here and gone in an instant, until I lost my place and nodded off. When I awoke, my friend was sitting there with a bottle of wine giggling mad and cabin-bored; "How long have we been on this damn train?"

In Berlin we jumped off the train and ran down the concrete steps that spat us and our momentum out into the little market, and we bought wine, then scurried back up the steps and rushed back onto the train. Sister, pensively staring out the window, didn't even look worried that we might not make it back in time. In the red, dilapidated train in the Czech Republic we opened the window and rolled our own cigarettes. We laughed and cussed as if in private, grown delirious by the boredom and the rapidly shifting setting, and sister looked concerned, and quietly sought to set an example of quietude for us to follow. Meanwhile, the other friend was puking in the bathroom, the claustrophobic closet where you shoot your leavings down to the track like it’s a deposit slip at your bank's drive through.

Your mind rests on the train, ready for next city's wonderment. Your body rests, your levels climb and every now and then you say something hilariously funny that has them laughing for days. You feel at home in your little seat, each one exactly the same as the last but somehow different, depending on your destination, whether you're coming or going, sleeping or waking, watching or dreaming. You have time to wonder, to wander through your mind. You have plenty of time to ponder what this trip two thousand miles from your sedentary world will imply for your life when you get home. What kind of larger conscious have you gained from coming here? Their language of Belgium seems slightly humorous to me, what with all their double and triple 'a's', their plaats and straatens, their gruff, guttural statements suggesting life is too strange not to hock loogeys when you talk. There is too much insanity and curiosity in the minds of children to not speak bluntly, succinctly, to the point with an accent of absurdity. We saw artwork in the Brussels museum yesterday from the 14th and 15th centuries, pastoral scenes and religious paintings with devils and demons lurking in the corners, hiding below chairs. What I took from the looming evil is that everyday monotony lulls you into complacency, a sense of security, blinds you to the wickedness waiting just around the corner. Life is one big picture distorted; things are clearly simple and not at all what they seem. People have bodies and say things, they have an appearance and a disposition, but you can never know what they're thinking, what secret sin they long for most, what desires they cherish but will never admit or act upon.

What am I supposed to learn? What more must I know? These trips seem to teach me very little. They expose me to an upending of my mind, a confusion of my orientation. I learn nothing new about myself and people react differently to me because I've traveled, because I've been places and seen things, because I've had a beer in every country I've been to. Well, I'll tell you now: it's a sham. This type of traveling doesn't educate you, it pampers you. It cradles you in exotic pleasures and seclusion. You don't even have to tell the Germans how much you're enjoying the schnitzel--they already know. The locals know and they don't much care, either. They seem so friendly, so secure in their amiability, but what are they really thinking? In Belgium, I saw a bartender holding a tap handle in each hand like they were controls in a WWII fighter plane, brooding, ruing the day he ever became a bartender in Brussels. He wore white clothes and his hair was dark, his face was cragged, chin sharp, eyes plain and staring five thousand miles away. Meanwhile, our President's head, Bush 43, filled the TV screen. The sound off, subtitles in French, the bartender appeared ready to erupt in a tirade about the baloney of life. It would have surprised me very little for him to blurt out some untranslatable words, wave his arms frantically in the air attempting to tear down and rip apart the facade in front of us all, the one blocking our view of the truth. I learned then and there that everyone works at suppressing their anxieties, to find the enjoyable stuff of life in the face of grave realities, and can muster a smile when necessary. When we left he said, "Ciao." Then, as we rounded the next corner my mind traveled back into that bar, playing out the scene, and I watched him hurl a brick at the TV. It sailed all the way through the set to America, smacking the president's forehead. The president fell down. I watched in humored amazement as the bartender tore the clock off the wall and stomped on the timepiece, pulled down all the taps causing waterfall of beer to flood the bar, and stammered as a madman, rampaging down the streets of Brussels in a furious and fulfilling anger.

Travel writers be damned. Travel makes you dumber. Living in a foreign country, that's different. When you can make a routine, see the same people day in and out, find a tasty and affordable food you like to eat because it's easy, and cheap, and it reminds you that you're home in you not-home. Then you start to learn, start to acclimatize yourself with patterns and recognize variations. But a short visit gives you pleasure. I saw a tour guide or college professor waxing on modern art in the Brussels museum, speaking French and giving what looked to be an enrapturing lecture. Thankfully, I could not understand him and wandered past the group in my oblivious bliss. I don't care anymore what boundaries bind artistic movements; just show me the smut and make me laugh. Travel to sites of carnal pleasure and consume them without regret. Dare to go to Europe and refuse to change. If it is knowledge you seek, read the Bhagavad Gita and meditate with a Hindu. But when traveling to Europe, prepare to live in a waking dream.

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