Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Brugge (Pt. XXIV)

Note to readers: This is the twenty-fourth part of a recounting of my Grand European Tour, taken in the fall of 1999. You can read Part XXIII here.

The Venice of the North
Autumn deepened toward winter. Days were dark and dreary; nights, freezing cold. I had one last stop before returning to Amsterdam to await the flight home: Brugge, in the west of Belgium, the "Venice of the North."

Wandering through that medieval maze of cobble-stoned streets I was amazed at Belgian resolution. Not the prospect of long dark winter nights, neither the dying of the year, nor icy winds from the English Channel could transform their steely grimaces to either smiles or long faces. They are a stalwart folk.

There were also many Brits from across the Channel taking holiday, drinking, carousing loudly, in this dreamlike setting: dreamlike, but not pleasant . . . eerie. As the sun sank, ghostly mists arose from the many canals that meander through the township, creating a surreal world. Only the discordant laughter of partying Brits prevented a complete trans-temporal reverie.

I got drunk again that night. Yes, drunk, after having shared beers with partying Brits in an outdoor cafe under a space heater. We talked politics, led by a Labor Party activist who sang the praises of Tony Blair. Later, in my room (a lonely enclave in an out-of-the-way alley), the hazards of introspection loomed. I looked in the mirror long and hard. I liked what I saw. Braving the reflection cast back at me from the bathroom mirror, I thought I glimpsed those things that others, those who like and admire me, might see. Dade: open-minded intellectual, world-traveler, generous, compassionate.

Then suddenly, at long last, I experienced some pangs of homesickness. I had a longing for my green, rainy home in the upper left-hand corner of civilization.

Medieval township in the autumn light
The next day consisted of solitary wandering through the streets and a boat tour of Brugge's many canals. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, Brugge was a thriving and important seaport emitting Normandy grain, Gascony wine;  admitting goods from Genoa and Venice. Eventually, silt from the Zwin channel bottled up the harbor; Brugge was eclipsed by Antwerp as the premiere port of the north. Alas, Brugge! But just as every pleasure has an edge in pain, so too does every misfortune have its left-handed benefit. In the turbulent times to come, no armies would roll over Brugge; no Luftwaffe bombs would rain death on her denizens.

Memorial for fallen Canadians
Next day was my final day in Flanders. I climbed aboard a bus to tour those fields where Germans and Canadians and Brits died in their millions, sprinting from trench to trench, drowning in mud, dissipating in ghastly explosions, choking and dying in clouds of poisonous gas. It was here, in Flanders, that occurred the most vicious and senseless slaughters of the Great War.

Decrepit bunker crumbling amid the dead
My guide was Philippe Uyttenhove (passionate, knowledgeable) of Quasimodo tours. Eloquent and understated, he spoke with emotion of the butchery that had occurred on these fields some 85 years before. His own mother had fled her home, leading her children with those belongings she could pile onto her wheelbarrow, before advancing Germans could occupy her town. Even today, passions run deep in these parts. Philippe admitted to a hatred of Germans. "When I hear their language, I go berserk," said he. "They do not ride on my bus."

My face must have revealed my sad shock, my despair. "I won't pass it on to my children," he said, almost apologetically. "That wouldn't be right."

The unnumbered fallen
Many millions of artillery shells tore up these fields. An unknown number were buried in the mud, undetonated. Every year, Belgian farmers are killed when plows strike live shells buried in the ground. The residue of war continues to collect its tragic tax.

Somber, solemn graveyards give testament to the flower of a generation, plucked from humanity's bouquet before it could bear fruit.

That evening, I boarded the train for Amsterdam. The end of my journey was at hand.

To be continued...

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