When you travel slowly, as you do on a bike, you can notice the little changes.
Sailing for two months from the Caribbean to England, the temperature of the air and water decline ever so gradually, day by day, a natural change that is unnoticable except in hindsight.
Approaching the border of a different country, one can detect shifts of dialect in the simple words of neighbors, like a bleeding language buffer on either side of the invisible line – especially in Belgium, where both Dutch and French are official languages of the state.
Geography follows this gentle course as well. When we left behind those level Dutch horizons, where you can pick out all the villages within fifty kilometers by their church steeples, there were finally hills again! Just a few enjoyable rollers at first, enough to remind me that variety can be more fulfilling that an easy ride. I began to feel sorry for Dutch roadies – they don’t have any hills to train on! I was reminded of Ranulf back at Budget Bikes, taking his lunch break to ride his single-speed on the wickedest hill in the hood. The best you could hope for in the Netherlands is a big bridge.
Lily did well – I only mention it because she was riding a single-speed bicycle…! Even in this tall beach-cruising gear, even loaded down – and with nowhere near the cycling prowess of Papa Ranulf – she was a champion on the hills. I actually felt a bit guilty whenever I shifted to an easier gear, and eventually I started matching her ratio over the hills, just to make sure I could do it. Good perspective!
Antwerp was first… we only passed through. Just a big gray port city, just an hour and a half of urban navigation, just a check on some list somewhere. Sorry Antwerp.
Brussels, capitol of Belgium and executive center of the European Union – now this was a city we had to check out. Lily had been there before, but on a bike now, the city easily mapped itself around us in organic, natural fashion. I imagine the underground metro teleporting my confused subconscious onto a spinning compass-bearing, leaving me upside-down somewhere on a Google printout… bikes are way better!
We had a connection in town, and found our way to the meeting spot just before sunset. Dante, who we met at Casa Robino, is a multi-lingual hyper-network sweetie with a cute Belgian goatee who has been living for five years without an income. Not just without a job, but without an income… don’t ask me how he does it!
The first thing we did was eat French fries, which are of course originally a Belgian cuisine – if you can call greasy fried potatoes cuisine. I was giddy and joking with everyone in line at the little mobile fry-shack, which was a permanent landmark on the glitzy metropolitan corner, between the big be-statued plaza and the perfectly manicured park, right on a main thoroughfare. Belgian fries aren’t just for tourists – the queue was huge! Brazil sauce and mayonnaise was great, sauce Americaine was disgusting. The frites themselves were good – really good, after cycling all day – but I can’t say they were the best I’ve ever had. Only the most famous. We ate them on a bench, out of white paper trays with little multi-colored plastic shrimp forks, watching all the prim Belgians walk by and wrapping our tongues around the French language. Night fell over the park and friends popped by.
The next thing we did was find Belgian beer. The Belgians make some of the best beer in the world, and this was really a major accomplishment for me. We went to a bar that had hundreds of different beers; for my first beer in the country, I had a simple Duvel, the standard high-gravity blue-collar beer of Belgium(which compared to Pabst was like paté to popcorn). Lily had a kriek, cherry beer of some brand or another, a thick, fizzy, swirling-sweet alcoholic delicacy. Yumm!
Dante set us up to stay with some friends for a few days. Lily was confident she could find the place in the dark – I burped contentedly and uttered a wobbly “Allons-y.” We took our beer buzz and explored the night, up narrow streets crowded with cobblestones and compact cars, down broad boulevards banked by dizzying flood-lit buildings, surrounded by a city of ancient centuries masked in modern drag.
On to “La Maison à Dormir Debout” – “The House of Sleeping Standing Up.” We had fallen in with a small group of crafty folks that call themselves NOUR – NOmades URbaines. Henri and Alex were our gracious hosts; for their honeymoon they had walked around Europe for four months, relying on the hospitality of strangers almost every night for a dry place to sleep, AND they love to ride bikes, so they were happy to help us out with a bit of floor space. Merci mes amis!
Our first day in Bruxelles, we gathered at La Maison and headed into the city by bike.
Vinz, a rugged bike-traveler with a special pocket on his rucksack for a dijiridoo and a Rohloff 14-speed touring hub in his bike, zoomed down the hill in front of the European Union HQ building, middle finger in the air and shouting “EU Commission SUX!!!” They took us to an abandoned plaza surrounded by abandoned twenty-story office buildings, where weeds push up through cracks and old broken glass, and the towering degradation of the metropolis is inescapable. The view here of Bruxelles’ cramped city center is a jutting, variegated warren of charming stone chimneys, telephone wires, and TV antennae, rooftops and balconies like the sons of seeds scattered by a frivilous hand, no uniformity, architecture in every angle under the sun. And it isn’t only the thousands of offices in the massive corporate blocks that are in disuse, but also over 11.000 residences all across town – while squatting is against the law. But they tell me that trying to find a flat in Bruxelles is still a superhuman endeavor, not to mention insanely expensive….
After a small headset adjustment, we stopped at “La Maison du Vélo,” a touring-specific bike shop downtown. It was a wonderland of tough trekking bikes and sleeping bags, maps and tents and camping gear, with that satisfying rubber-and-grease aroma of a true workshop. When they saw me, the guys in the shop were like, “He tours with platform pedals and army boots?!? Quiet, here he comes!” The owner, Yves, couldn’t warranty my Brooks saddle, but he did hook me up with a couple metric bolts and some fresh Koolstops. Merci!
We went to a sprawling outdoor flea market, where crowds of people eddy and drift, browsing collections of pre-owned and re-used, knick-knacks and piles of random relics for sale. It’s the type of place where you might discover the perfect coffeetable for your apartment if you look long enough, a place where you can find postcard notes in 1940s Belgian cursive, a recurve bow on discount, strung backwards, a sterling gravy boat, neon bike accessories from the eighties…. I found it much more interesting to raise my eyes from the glittering treasure hoards on the ground and browse the people instead. Here’s a proud old ex-diva with a fresh red dye-job and stylish black sunglasses obscuring her crows’ feet; there’s a dad who hasn’t shaved since Friday morning with his daughter on his shoulders, her arms wrapped around his forehead; the comsopolitan fashion addict sluicing Belgian French into her cellphone and noncomittally glancing at all the junk; Moroccan friends lounging over an easy-afternoon conversation; a dark, well-trimmed Belgian goatee under a delicate Belgian visage….
We biked on to a different market, this time to free some food. We knew dumpster diving was illegal in Belgium – a Dutch activist friend of Lily’s was actually in jail for doing it in Brugge – but this we considered a perfect reason for civil disobedience. Henri and Vinz were a little freaked out at first, and not because of the cops. Once, Lily picked up a peach from the ground near a fruit stand – still good, it had only been “bounced” – and Vinz, confused, asked “Now what are you going to do with that peach?” We exchanged a quick smile and Lily replied, around a mouthful of peach juice, “Mais, le manger!” and handed me a bite. Henri also admitted that the idea was a bit disgusting to him, but he found enough vegetables and fruit to fill a bag all by himself, and he certainly ate plenty of the plum confiture I made later. At one point, our hands full of great trash food, Lily and I were approached by a security guard: “Pardon, madame et monsieur…” We quickly walked away with our booty, no worries, while he was saying something to the vendor, but I think he wanted to give us a ticket.
We went to a little side-street dinner party at another urban nomad’s place; there were two kung-fu naturopath couchsurfers from Germany and a cat that reminded me of Horatio – minus the collar. I picked up some tips on knife sharpening from Regis, observed some delicious culinary tricks in the kitchen, and diligently continued the French practice. Then we hit the streets to see Damien’s band play at the University, a happy gang of bike lovers in action. Regis was relatively new to cycling, but had that refreshing beginner’s enthusiasm. He took ten minutes gearing up in a full-on orange cycling-safety suit and had a bike so full of safety accessories he was like a flashing red-and-white reflective satellite, shouting “One hundred fifty euro fine for running a stop sign!!!” while everyone else cruised through the reds. “ONE HUNDRED FIFTY EUROS!!!” He’s funny.
We got directions from a dude on campus smoking a joint – apparently the students have free run to do what they want, illegal or no. The gig was already under way when we arrived, but Damien saw me in the back and called me up to the front. I took Lily’s hand and we snuck through the press of bodies to the floor right in front. We took off our shoes and started jammin’! It was a very special show; all acoustic instruments in an impressive variety; there was the quirky cute chic singing with guitar, tamborine, and mouth-harp; the sexy young drummer with a very slick goatee and a jazzy hat; the pregnant woman with bouncing curls, dancing and singing; a blonde stunner from Paris, sitting up straight and playing violin-fiddle-violin; and their wind-man, popping out behind us in the crowd with a dijiridoo, or soloing on the panpipes, or busting out his saxophone. All while waves of poetry washed over us: Damien, singing his heart out, eyes closed, wispy black hair in an oriental bun, soul just pulsing. Beautiful. He sang in English – he really respected the best of American music, as sort of a goal, apparently. So of course after the show, he was looking at me eagerly, as if I have some special secret in my ears. Man, sometimes I really feel weird, coming from the entertainment capitol of the world….
One day, in exchange for putting us up during our time in Bruxelles, Henri asked me to teach him how to make his bike last for the rest of his life. Quite an ask! We went out on the porch and began exchanging bicycle vocabulary. I did my succinct best, speaking on frame-saver and metal composition and enamel, praising the value of knowing one’s bike, and recommending frequent service. It was a bright French bike-rant soup with a single grain of salt – “If you really ride it, your bike just won’t last forever.”
I hadn’t used my own rear brake since arriving in the Netherlands on New Year’s Eve – it had been sticking and I just didn’t need it in flat, flat Holland, so I spent two months with it disconnected. Winter had taken its toll though, and one of the brake arms was rusted solid. Thankfully Henri had a bench vise in his basement – whoo hoo! I don’t often have a chance to work with the proper tools; most of the time I am improvising on the road. God I miss the bike shop…. I freed the brake arm and was tuning the rest when Vinz dropped by with an assortment of Belgian beer and helped out. Normally I wouldn’t let anyone work on my bike, but Vinz the Cyclo is a true nomad(and an experienced mechanic) living the freedom of bikes in a way I don’t often have the pleasure of sharing. I drank Chimay Bleu and wiped road gunk off my drive train while he drank Orval trappiste and overhauled my front brake. A proper session of beer and bikes, buzzed and covered in grease – thanks Vinz!
Lily and I lived and played for five days in Bruxelles, reveling, gathering inspiration, and making friends. We never did try any Brussels sprouts in Brussels, and we never found anyone who actually knows the name “Hercule Poirot”(Agatha Christie’s famous BELGIAN detective), but eventually we had to keep moving. Paris or Bust!
We left on a gorgeous March morning, and it was finally starting to feel like Spring! We celebrated the weather with t-shirts, and on our way out of town, we celebrated Bruxelles one last time, eating gourmet chocolate from Van Something, sitting on the sunny side of the street, feeding each other and moaning in pleasure. Whoo! Good stuff!
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