She turns to her screen, obviously relieved I don’t take it out on her. Her face frowns when she says:
“Your next train will leave in an hour, I am so sorry sir.”
I thank her anyway and leave the train station. The busy roundabout lies before me. Cars humming about, picking up and dropping off people. At rush hour the “kiss & ride” looks more like a “curse & ride” to me. How many times have I been here before? Waiting for the train home, not knowing when it will come. If it would come at all. At least it’s not freezing or raining this time. What to do now?
Instinctively I take my phone out of my pocket to kill some time. Amazing how quickly that device ends up in my hands, no matter where I am. Battery dead. Curse you, iOS9. If train strikes taught me anything it’s to always have backup plan… I take out my powerbank. Dead as well.
Ah well. No point in stressing. I walk over to the terrace of the pub called “Friends” and order a Coke. Disappointment pops up when I realize my sugary drink doesn’t come with salty peanuts. You can’t have it all in life. Lower your expectations and you won’t get disappointed as easily. I take out my book and read a few chapters. It’s a compelling read, but I can’t help looking up from time to time, to observe the people passing by. It’s everyone’s favorite summer pasttime, including yours. Admit it.
I close my eyes to enjoy summer’s first rays of sun on my face, reminiscing about the few times my teenage buddy Erik successfully dragged me away from my games and movies to partake in some outdoor social activities. I was 17 or 18 at the time and now I wish I had listened to him more often. I open my eyes and there it is, right across the street from where I am sitting: his regular spot, the Manhattan, although the bar is no longer called that way. There are other teens sitting there now. The circle of life, I suppose. I take another sip. How I miss Erik’s company. How we used to laugh back in those days. It seems so long ago already. I would pay him a visit tonight if I could, but it’s not that easy. He lives on the other side of the globe. In 2007 he got offered a job in Singapore. Has it been almost ten years since he left? A brief glance at my watch tells me it’s time to go. I finish my Coke and return to the kind lady in the trainstation…
Not going anywhere
“Oh my, I am truly TE-RRI-BLY sorry sir. It seems you will not get home before 10 pm tonight. You can take the bus of course, but that will take you at least one hour and a half too. So it’s the same. I’m glad you’re still smiling…”
She’s right, I feel no anger or frustration as I walk out. Only a bit disappointed maybe. Disappointed in what unions have become as opposed to what they used to stand for. Disappointed in the way of thinking of a large part of the babyboomers and generation X. “Me, me, me” and “Money money money”. How did it come to that? Would life really become unbearable after giving up two holidays a year? Holidays that, in all honesty, were unfair / not social compared to the rest of active community to begin with? Why are so many people blind for everything they, no WE, do have? Are strikers ignorant of the fact that they are actually taking away more time from others than is being taken away from them? Seriously: if you count all the hours they deliberately stole from their “hostages”, the daily commuters, it would add up to be a lot more than two holidays per year. But I suppose they have the right to defend those “acquired rights” even though the world around them is changing, rapidly. Strange logic.
I shake my head, shake it off and go sit on a bench. Let’s enjoy some more sunshine while I read another chapter. I make a mental note to write about the life changing literature I’ve been reading lately. At least it says “Life-changing” on the cover. Next I decide to do something out of the ordinary: I kick off my shoes and put my bare feet on the warm pavement. Why, you ask? Why not? I like it. I feel the warm ground beneath my feet and feel more in touch with the moment itself. It relaxes me.
I sit outside the train station with bare feet and a good book. Some people give me sideway glances. They make me smile. Why should they feel uncomfortable if I just want to relax here? It’s not like I suddenly look like a homeless person… and it’s definitely not like I’m sitting here sporting only a red pair of Speedos. Why can some people get slightly annoyed by something as insignificant as kicking of shoes in public when shouting in traffic or crippling an entire country by striking are considered acceptable behavior?
Next I decide to take a stroll. The weather is just too lovely to sit and wait. They strike, I stroll!
I plan to call Sofie to come pick me up at her mother’s house, about 6 kilometers away. The hour it will take her to drive to Mechelen, I will spend hiking. Let others stress in traffic jams and train stations. Let them call each other names and post their hatred for unions on Facebook… I choose to stroll next to the canal, below the trees in the beautiful light of the setting sun. In life, you always get to choose how you play the cards you are dealt.
The moment I start walking, I’m reminded of a story I read recently. A story about a guy who refused to drive a car, out of principle. Even being a bus passenger was a big no-no. He just walked everywhere. It goes without saying: getting around to his work, friends or a date required some pretty good time management. Somehow he managed to live that way for years. I look forward to getting an inkling of what that would feel like.
Friendly encounters on memory lane
After five minutes already I’m glad I made this decision. Walking is very slow but if you let go of the notion that you “need” to be somewhere ASAP, you have more time to let everything sink in and get relaxed. You see so much more of life when you leave your daily commuting route and take the road less traveled. I pass cyclists, runners, rollerskaters. I see dog owners walking next to pets with tongues happily dangling from their mouths. Tired but satisfied, the dogs look up to their masters, grateful for this beautiful stroll together.
There are patient fishermen (and fishergirls) who are more likely here to catch some rays than to catch fish. I pass people enjoying the setting sun and each others company on the terrace of a fully booked restaurant. The waiters are working hard to get everybody served. They wipe the sweat from their foreheads, but they never fail to smile as they take new orders. How I respect people working in the restaurant industry, especially during summer. Hats off to you.
Next I come across an older immigrant man who seems to be enjoying what might be his daily evening stroll. I smile as I greet him. My gesture surprises him but he rushes to smile and nod back. A bit further down the road I see young people setting up “De Komeet”, a summer bar in Mechelen. I make a mental note to check it out this summer.
This part of Mechelen, next the Canal, or the Vaart in Dutch, seems like such a nice place to live. So quiet but still so many nice people around, so many things to do.
I pass the bridge that leads to the Vrijbroekpark. An ex-colleague of mine lives nearby. I visited him recently and he taught me everything I know about WordPress. If it wasn’t for him, NoMoreMovies would not even be here. He is one of those people who strongly believe that we all should take more time to share our knowledge. Free of charge. How I enjoyed our long philosophical debates about the failings of modern society over lunch. I consider paying him a surprise visit but I realize I should really keep on walking. Also, I need to get my hands on a phone, because I still haven’t called Sofie.
I start looking around: that old lady will probably think I’m trying to rob her if I ask her for her phone. Another guy is enjoying some music on his phone, so better not bother him. That dude’s phone looks a hazard to public health, let’s not take that risk. A bit further down the road I see an easy-going couple talking in front of their house. He’s holding a phone. I go over and ask him if I can use his phone. At the exact same time he holds the device next to his ear and starts talking. I stand there, feeling a bit silly. The girl heard me and rushes inside to get hers. I call Sofie saying: “They’re at it again: strike! Can you come pick me up at your mothers’ house? Yes, you know them, they never consider the consequences of their actions.”
The guy also finished calling and offers me a ride home or wherever I need to go. I tell him that’s kind of him and I’m grateful for the offer, but I prefer to walk for now.
So Sofie’s on her way and so am I.
Canoes, Parties and Pizza’s
Ah, the royal canoe club with the old pizza restaurant next to it. After all these years, the terrace is still fully packed. I always associate the canal with my old friend Erik. He was a member of the canoe club and a few times, during summer, I would go over to watch him and have a drink or two afterwards. It’s another one of those things I should have done a lot more, back in the day. A few teens are hanging out on the shore, the girls giggling and running around on bare feet. They’re no doubt making memories that will last a lifetime.
I pause to look at the small square in front of the club. I must have been the same age as those teens when I visited my very first party right here. At fourteen I drank no alcohol, didn’t speak to anyone (but to Erik) and didn’t leave my seat for the whole night. Not even when the DJ played “Gonna be allright” by Deep Zone.
To some of you that might sound like a terrible night, but to me, it’s a fond memories. Don’t get me wrong: part of me really enjoyed being there, if only it was to observe these otherwise sane human beings giving in to all these crazy things. Like the irresistible urge to form a line after hearing the first notes of the famous Dutch song “There’s a horse in the corridor…” This is one mystery of life that I still haven’t figured out yet. Somehow the effect that beer has on people must increase exponentially when the beer is lukewarm and drank from cheap plastic cups.
My stroll down memory lane continues as I pass not far from where Steven used to live. Steven is another old friend of mine. I remember the days I visited him to play some videogames when he lived here. That must have been 1997 or 1998. A few years later, when I was seeing Sofie, he was part of our regular gang. We used to hang out with him and Sarah all the time, for about five years. Then they got kids and we didn’t see each other that often. Everyone knows how it goes. Our lives were just too different. Without placing any blame, children change things, obviously. By moving to the countryside we created a physical distance as well. Not the same distance as to my friend in Singapore, but still.
I’m sure if we bump into them, we will have a nice chat. We will tell them how much their kids have grown, ask them how they are doing in their jobs and life in general. We would definitely end the conversation by saying we’ll keep in touch and we would both be sincere at the time. But we all know it wouldn’t happen in the end. Some roads in life are only meant to run parallel for a fixed amount of time.
The sun is sinking low now. Ducks quack gently as they are finding a place to sleep. I realize I missed my exit a while ago but decide to keep walking anyway. At the next turn a pizza delivery boy rides past me, turns around in a neat circle and stops his motorcycle next to me. He removes his helmet. The moroccan boy asks me for directions. I smile and say, “my friend, I’m afraid I can’t help you as I’m lost myself.”
He ends up giving me directions, pointing me to the Battelsesteenweg. By the twinkle in his eyes I can tell he finds it very funny but he helps me out nonetheless. We part ways. I reach the main road and even though I need to go right, I quickly glance to the left. At the end of the road lies the village Battel, where I played basketball when I was 12. My only and short-lived effort at team sports. But I’m not going there now. Enough reminiscing for one day. Time to go home.
Dreams and cars
An eight-year old girl passes me on a segway-like toy. She’s still a bit unsteady but judging by the stern look on her face, she’s determined to do a lot better before summer is over. Across the street a Moroccan or Turkish family has gathered outside around a second-hand multi-pupose vehicle (or monovolume as we say in Dutch). Clearly the new family vehicle for the summer. The younger kids are running and playing around it as the greying father looks on, with his hands proudly on his waist. I estimate the car is about 5 to 7 years old, but it’s in very good condition. Shiny even! His friends, or possibly brothers, are looking inside and complimenting him on the new family acquisition.
This little scene transports me instantly to the times my grandparents bought a new car. A short summary for those who don’t know: my parents divorced when I was about six. My grandparents took me in and raised me. We never owned an actual new car, as we couldn’t afford one. Nevertheless, getting a new family vehicle was always exciting. Usually, but not always, the new car was a step-up compared to the previous one. The reason for getting a new one was always the old one falling apart completely (sometimes literally). Like with our 1977 Ford Fiesta: the headlight fell out from it’s socket whenever we drove over a cobbled street. Especially annoying after dark. Thank god for ducttape!
Another car that wasn’t a step-up was our Chrysler Sunbeam. It had cost my grandfather his last 6000 francs (150 euros) and was a sight to behold. Erik still bursts out in laughter whenever he thinks of that time we drove downhill and the brakes failed. My grandfather behind the wheel, pumping brakes until he broke a sweat, my grandmother clinging to the dashboard, screaming instructions to “hang on” and “brace for impact”. All the while, we were in the back laughing our heads off.
And there was the green Skoda with the engine in the back. (“Just like a Porsche,” my grandfather used to add). My grandmother and me got plenty of morning exercise those days. We had to push the car in order to get it running so I could be driven to school.
All joking aside, I loved these cars. As I grew up grandparents took me and my friends to every park, zoo and landmark in the Benelux in these cars. And usually we made it back home too. My grandmother carrying a bag of fruit for the ride. Muffled music coming from the AM/MW radio. FM was a luxury that only the newer car stereos had. I will never forget those family trips. They were the best!
And besides, I was the lucky one. These were the luxury family cars. My uncle told me stories from when he was a kid. The cars my grandfather drove back then supposedly had mushrooms growing from the car floor and there was always a spare car battery charging in the bathroom. Just like I bring along a powerbank in case my phone battery fails, my grandfather always carried a spare car battery with him in a bag. Just in case. (Correct me in the comments below if I’m wrong, uncle.)
In any case, remember standing outside on a warm summer evening on just such an occasion, the whole family gathered to behold the latest family vehicle in the sunset. We were always hoping for the best, but silently fearing the worst. Somehow I have a feeling this family’s car will be better than our Sunbeam.
We’re nearing the end of memory lane. I pass the appartments of two more of my best friends. One moved to southern part of the country, to La Louvière. He is doing pretty good and bought a house with “a lot of rooms”. Those are his own words, as he actually couldn’t remember just how many rooms he had. The other one is still living in Mechelen but recently moved in with his wife and her adorable kid. They sold his appartment, bought some land and plan to build a very special house on it. It will be very energy efficient and mainly built of natural components. (“And it’s not gonna look like a Hobbit hole”, they usually add when they see the looks on other people’s faces). I’ll definitely write a post on it, when the time comes.
A few minutes later I pass MacDonalds. Yes, I remember this Drive-through all too well. Countless midnight snacks with Sofie when we were dating in our early twenties. It’s a miracle we didn’t gain 20 kilos each by the time we moved in together. There in my 1989 Ford Fiesta 1.1 with choke handle, between fries and cheeseburgers, we dared to modestly dream of our future together… Wondering where life would take us.
Yes, we wondered if we both could find a decent job. One that would allow us to be able to buy a brand new car. One that you could put together to your liking from a catalogue! Would we be able to travel? See the world together?
Or should we save every penny to maybe one day own a house with a garden? Or would that be overreaching? Our nearest family kept telling us that buying houses was only possible for the rich, not for common folk like us. That’s why they never bought a house and were still renting. “Owning a house is like tying a rope around your neck.” So to avoid the disillusionment, they advised us to stop dreaming of semi-detached houses altogether. But our dreams proved hard to kill. Thank god for that!
Until long after the cheeseburgers were finished, we kept dreaming of “the house”. Would we have pets? Would we have kids? Would I ever prove to be a good father? And what about all the fears and issues I was still struggling with at the time? How could I be a good father if I wasn’t even satisfied with who I was? I knew I first had to beat that stuff somehow. That was the real rope around my neck.
One more street to go as I’m startled by a car horn. Sofie, of course. She was getting worried and started looking for me in the neighbourhood. Even though I thought my time management wasn’t too bad: a wizard is never late, nor is he early. He arrives precisely when he means to.
“Did you walk all this way? It’s terrible what they put people through, always with the strikes…”
I just smile and tell her I actually enjoyed the walk. Enjoyed it a lot. She asks me where I have been all this time, I reply: “I took a stroll down memory lane.”
She looks at me like I’m out of my mind again.
I smile and tell her: “Let’s just go home.”
Sitting comfortably in the airconditioned car, my grandfather pops to mind again. Even though he bears a deep rooted grudge against BMW’s (and their arrogant drivers), he was very proud when, after 11 years, I got my first company car. Even though he did complain that the seats on the BMW were far too low to get in or out comfortably. He definitely preferred the ones in his Skoda.
Back home I suggest to take out shoarma and eat it in the garden. As Sofie is gone to pick up the shoarma I change clothes, put on a chill playlist on Spotify and mix us up a Mojito with fresh mint from our garden. We sit at the picknick table as the last rays of the sun hit our face. Fentom, the stray dog we welcomed in our home for the time being, can smell shoarma from 5 miles away and circles the table. It finally feels like summer. After sunset a pair of friendly garden-bats start circling above our heads. Time to go to sleep.
Oh, I almost forgot: the Brexit vote happened today. If we are to believe the headlines, this marks the beginning of the end for life as we know it. Somehow, after the all the humanity, love and friendship I have seen today, I couldn’t care less. Life in essence, is very simple, we only allow others to make it complicated. We let ourselves be burdened by complexities.
I’m certain the British will manage in the end. And we, Europeans, we will manage too. Why? Because we’re more than currency rates or the amount on our savings account. We’re more than commuting robots, working from paycheck to paycheck. We’re a lot more than “us versus them”. We are human.
In the end we, as a species, have overcome every obstacle we encountered by sheer will and adaptability. This has not changed. Yes, I admit, we humans might be a tad slow in reacting to challenges, and we tend to make the same mistakes over time, but in general we learn. We will overcome silly little things like a Brexit.
And who’s to say, the British will not be better off in the end? Just like you would with a curious kid, let nations take some risks, let them make some mistakes. It would be arrogant to say that ours is the only way, the best way for everyone. If people, communities were not allowed to follow their instincts, explore and try out new things, we would still be that small tribe of apes in Africa. Or possibly even extinct by now! Diversity, adaptability and curiosity are our biggest strengths, let’s embrace them.
The British will learn… or perhaps the result will positively astound us all… in a way no one could have foreseen without trying it. Let’s just watch with an open mind and learn.