Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Alone in Antwerp

August 21, 2012 – Alone in Antwerp

About coffee time I get a call. It’s Josko. “I can’t come outside with you,” he says.

“Okay,” I say. This doesn’t come as a surprise. I’d had a premonition.

There’s been a problem with one of the engineers and Josko has to fill in his duty slot. “You come down and take coffee?” he suggests.

“I’ll be right down.” I’d already made some coffee in the lounge and I take my cup with me as I descend into the bowels of the ship. I only get turned around once in the labyrinth of levels, machines, and stairs before I find the engine room where Josko and Marius the electrician are.

I step inside and take out my earplugs. “So you’re actually having to work now?” I tease Josko. I take a seat and get comfortable. “So what’s going on?” I ask.

They tell me in full gossipy detail and then move on to speculation. From there they segue into tales of death, accidents, and officers who’d been sent home early for all variety of reasons. I listen. I don’t even need to put in a word in edgewise to keep them going. It’s better watching, better listening than TV.

Soon enough though, break time is over and Marius stands, replaces a vent cover on an open shaft and holds up a screwdriver “See what these guys did to my screwdriver? It’s always like this. They don’t take care of anything.” The screwdriver is bent and looks a bit stripped. I smile and keep my mouth shut. I don’t tell on the guy I’d seen yesterday who’d tried to fit a giant hook back into place with the aid of a very small screwdriver. It can’t be the same one.

Josko stands too. “I go up to my room for something and then I’ll be back,” he tells Marius.

I follow Josko through the maze and we head upstairs together.

“Ship needs elevator,” Josko says when we’re at the top.

I’m catching my breath and trying to pretend I’m not. It’s a lot of stairs. “You want anything from outside?” I ask, huffing.

“Some good chocolate,” he says.

“I’ll see what I can do,” I say.

I collect my stuff and go to the gangway. I’m feeling lethargic and unhurried. Lazy.

Jake is on duty. “You go outside?” he asks.

“Yeah,” I say, and take a seat next to him on the plank bench against the wall. At this rate the day will be over before I do anything. The air is not too hot, not too cold. It’s easy to sit here. Comfortable. I joke with the guys that walk by on their way to new tasks, on their way back from old ones. I smile at the stevedores that come onboard. Eventually I get up.

“Don’t go,” Jake says, catching my hands.

“I’ll come back,” I say. I pull my hands away. “See you later.”


I cross the dock and knock on the window to the guard shack. The guard is kind enough to call the taxi service for me. He lets me sit in the small lobby and we chitchat in between his business of letting trucks in and out of the area. Then my taxi arrives.

“Have my guys been good?” the driver asks. He’s the owner of the company.

“Yes, they have,” I say. I don’t mention that all his drivers drive fast like hell (as Josko would say) or that the first of his drivers that had taken Josh and me to immigration had had a touch of a road rage problem. He’d mellowed by the end of our trip and actually worked it out with his boss (my current driver) for me to pay a little bit less for my trips. Every euro saved is a euro I can use somewhere else. How could I tattle on him after that?

The owner drops me off at the café I’d selected. I bid him thanks and bye as I hand over the money and get out of the car.

I make myself at home at the Café Berlin. They’ve got free Wi-Fi and Kombucha. It’s a good combination. I call my mom, my grandmother, my sister, my sister-in-law, check up on emails, post pictures, work out my next trip step itinerary and exhaust myself at the computer screen. I have a late lunch of veggie lasagna with a glass of wine and feel grown up and sophisticated.

When I can’t stand sitting any more I pay my tab and venture out into the daylight.

One of the drivers had given me a good list of things to see which had compared very well with what the Flemish pilot had suggested. The Cathedral is a must see according to all, the MAS (Museum Ant de Stroom) is especially appealing with its panorama view of the city from its rooftop, and there’s the central transit station set in the center of a pleasing plaza.

I can’t make heads or tails of the map I have. The street names are long as my hand and none of the streets seem to actually connect to others. The names on the map don’t ever appear to match the street names I see on the signs or sides of buildings. My head is too fuzzed from computer work to think any more. I fold up the map, stick it in my bag and decide I’ll just wander around.

The cathedral is easy to find. It sticks out. But it’s just after five o’clock and the inside is closed off to those who aren’t coming to worship. I take pictures from the outside and from a small patio I sneak into. The doors that I try are locked. This is okay by me, I’m content enough to stay in the open air. I make the full circuit, seeing the cathedral from all angles. The side streets are lined with cafés and restaurants. They all have outdoor seating with people eating, drinking, chatting. This is exactly as I’d imagined Europe would be. I can’t believe I’m here.

In the square in front of the entrance to the cathedral I find a chocolate shop and buy some dark chocolate for Josko. A saxophone player is playing his own concert from the center of the square. He’s good. He plays the Pink Panther theme song, something jazzy, and as his last song, John Lennon’s Imagine. When he comes around to collect change from us listeners I give him a couple coins.

“Can I have your body too,” the sax player asks me, “or just your money?”

“Just the money,” I say quietly, wonderingly, and he’s already gone.
People are so strange, I think. I look for my reflection in a window to try and see what he’d seen. It’s fleeting and shadowy. And I’m easily distracted.

I find a bench facing the central transit center’s plaza. I sit and people watch. I listen to the Babel diversity of languages. Occasionally I write something in my notebook. I take a picture every now and then. The benches are arranged all around the plaza and people come and go. Sit next to others, sit next to me, and leave again. Two guys have been sitting together at a bench several benches away from me since I arrived. I’m cautious to not catch their eyes, to not be too friendly, to not smile at them. I don’t want conversation right now. I just want to observe.

A flush of guilt warms me. I should be up exploring. I should be finding my way to the MAS—I do want to see that panorama—then I realize that it’s Monday and the museum is closed. I shoo the guilt away. Take regret with you, I tell it. I have no use for either of you.

I sit where I am and Be. I want to enjoy the moment for exactly what it is and where I am.

So I do.

The cathedral’s bells chime the hour. It’s six. Maybe it’s seven. I steal a glance at the watch the guy on the bench next to me is wearing. It’s almost seven. I’ve sat here long enough. I’ll find a patio to sit on. I’ll get a beer or a coffee. I’ll be European too.

I’m halfway down the street when I see a word on a sign at a pub. Bolleke, it says. I laugh out loud. Not ball licker. Not bolleker. Bolleke. It’s the nickname for the De Koninck ale I’d had at the Irish Pub. I take out my notebook to write it down so I won’t forget it, won’t lose the word. I’ve flipped to a blank spot and started to write when a guy steps in front of me and starts talking. I’m only four letters into my scribing. I look up from the page and I recognize him. It’s the guy whose eye I didn’t catch. Who I didn’t smile at. He’d followed me. I don’t feel alarmed and wonder if I should. He’s talking to me in a language I can’t comprehend. It doesn’t sound Flemish, French, or German. It’s certainly not English. It’s probably Flemish.

“Sorry,” I say. “I don’t understand.”

“Oh, you speak English.” And he talks to me. Almost so fast I can’t keep up, his accent is tricky to follow. “Where are you from?”

“I’m American,” I say. “Where are you from? Here?”

He shakes his head. He tells me where he’s from. I don’t understand. But I think it’s somewhere Middle Eastern. He tells me he works here at some business he’s made.

“What were you laughing at?” he asks me.

I’d laughed? I’ve already forgotten I’d just laughed over Bolleke. I think back. Laughed? I’d smiled several times from my bench vantage point. At people’s interactions, at my own thoughts (which are usually too complicated or obtuse or silly to try and explain the humor of), at life.

“I’m just enjoying myself,” I tell him. It’s the best explanation I can come up with at the moment. It’s the truest one.

I write the “eke” to finish the word in my notebook and close it up, put it away.

“You’re very busy,” the guy tells me. He talks in paragraphs, in pages. He seems to think I’m friendlier than other women. That’s what I catch from his sentences. I don’t completely follow him although I’m trying. Friendlier? I think, it’s because I let my guard down when I’m in my own company. It’s because I smile when I want to. Most times. It’s because I laugh when something strikes me funny. Maybe this isn’t usual. Maybe this isn’t adult. It’s just me.

“Are you here alone?” he asks.

This I understand. And every now and then I can lie when I’m supposed to. “No,” I say. It’s not really a real real lie. I have a ship full of friends I’m here with. “I’m here with friends. Actually I’m just about to meet up with them.”

He looks disheartened. It’s taken a lot of nerve for him to follow me. To talk to me. I know this. It breaks my heart.

“I said to my friend that I was going to talk to you,” he tells me. “He told me to get you to come

In another life I would, I think. I can’t now. I kill this potential with my words. “I’m meeting up with my friends.”

“Okay,” he says. Rejected. Let down. Rejection. I know that pain. I’m so sorry, I think. I’m sorry. “I understand,” he continues. He does and he doesn’t.

He goes back to his friend and I go to my imaginary ones. It’s hard to be a girl.
Then I shrug off my remorse at not being able to make all people happy. I tell myself that he’ll find some prettier girl. He’s find some girl who can understand his words. He doesn’t realize now how much a plus that’ll be, I reassure myself. He’ll be happy somewhere down the line. You’re not responsible for that.

Thank goodness, I reply.

I find a patio café filled with people and select a seat for myself. I order a Bolleke.

With my feet stretched out and a drink in front of me, I look out at the statue of Brabo throwing the giant Antigoon’s cut off hand into the river and smile. I’m so European.

1 comment:

  1. You absolutely MUST use the line, "He talks in paragraphs, in pages." in a story somewhere. That's wonderful and evocative language. Such a short, simple statement portrays such a strong and wonderful sentiment about someone. The dichotomy of the contents of the statement and the execution of the statement still amaze me.

    That's wonderful stuff.

    PS: Thanks for the great photo of the cathedral. I miss European architecture. It's so awe-inspiring.