Trams bikes and big wheel. Antwerp by night. Still in March 2015 a nomansland. Strange lack of bearings inside me. Strange bleak land of scrub and industrial concrete building blocks outside. Grim. And Antwerp empty by night.
Old ’50s Nat King Cole song playing in background in deserted café where I’m taking a night-cap coffee. Smoke gets in your eyes. And in mine? Ghosts of yesteryear that I never even experienced. Weird.
Next day, to Ypres. A year of reading Pat Barker trilogy, Siegfried Sassoon, and recently Vera Brittain makes the journey imperative. A two hour journey. Apprehension still gripping, working out trains and whereabouts. Again across brown, bleak flat land, mile after mile, rubbish piling up even worse than in London. Graffitti everywhere but of a very superior sort. Graphic masters. Feeling sick. Barb Jungr song running through my brain – `my flat land, my Flanders flat land’ (back in London, looking it up, its from her wonderful CD The Space in Between, Jacques Brel, Marieke, lovers moving between Bruges and Ghent. Bruges and Ghent. Antwerp and Ypres. Antwerp and Ypres).
Trains, of course run to time, to the second, from Antwerp’s beautiful baroque Centrale station. We arrive in Iper (Ypres). Grey, uninviting. Cobbled natch, as everywhere in Antwerp, to the detriment of walkers (a biker’s paradise and my god, don’t they speed and own the pedestrianized pavements and even the roads). I don’t know where I’m going. The mobile helps. But loo calls. And its lunchtime. Everywhere shut. Deserted. I find a café, shuffle in. On exiting, Madame fixes me with an eye. `You a customer?’. No, I confess in English, `but emergency’. Not impressed, she turns away. `I will return’, I say and mean it.
Promised myself an hour but should I curtail it and get the next train back? Pressing on, eventually find the Museum, main street smelling of horse dung thronged with student groups (American mostly). Forego purchase in bookshop and Museum visit and head down to the Menin Gate. Standing before the names, the mind wobbles. I scan the legions of names, the battalions. Columns and columns of them. Nothing really prepares you for the lists despite all my reading. Desperately moving, just the immensity of what each name represents.
I find under Notts & Derby Infantry a surname, Holden, E. My maternal grandmother’s maiden name was Holden and somewhere in the family tree I can remember, or think I remember, one of her brother’s dying in the Great War. I will have to check.
Up the steps, there are fresh wreaths, one, poignantly placed only yesterday, March 23, 2015 by a Colonel in the Royal Engineers. `We will never forget.’ Bunches of school wreaths, too.
As I walk back, there is a small bookshop doing tours and selling memorabilia. I dart in one more time before catching the train back. On a back shelf amongst the usual collections stands a pale, slim book called `Shot at Dawn’. I open it. It is about 12 young Welshmen – 19/20/21 year olds – who were shot, maybe for desertion. I read a few pages. But I can’t go on. I feel I should buy it but explaining to the very nice woman (South African accent or Australian?) behind the counter that I just can’t, it’s too upsetting. `I know’, she says quietly, understandingly, `there is a lot here that is upsetting.’
Back in Antwerp, I have other adventures to attempt. One trip takes me to the outdoor Middelheim sculpture park (by bus this time, another timetable to be mastered!) – hundreds of sculptures from classical to abstract, all in conversation with each other and the great trees and landscape around. It’s magnificent. But wet. And tiring. Everything is tiring. They even have a bridge by Ai Wei Wei called the Bridge without a Name, ridged, uncomfortable – a grand metaphor for life’s journey I can’t help but think, felt through the feet…
The following day, determined to seek out the old Port, I wander again, at eventide, in rain, through old narrow streets, into church squares (and a beautiful church where a rather wonderful Easter Mass is under way; won’t I join? says one of the penitents coming over to me. I demur). Antwerp, off season, in the rain at night is, well, atmospheric. Despite the pained feet, I love the sense of being able to wander at will, even if lost, the searching out for somewhere to eat and a little bevvy beforehand. In the Groenplaats square, I stop for a beer under the awning. Only two other customers. The young woman running it is closing down for the night. What is the special pleasure of this solitude? Hard to put the finger on it but it’s there in the sound of the dripping rain along the tarpaulin covering, flickering lights, deserted cobbles as in the beauty Jacques Brel finds in his flat Flanders land that to my eyes has seemed so ugly, barren, and boringly uninspiring. Deserted cities at night, out of season are marvellous!
One last joy – evening meals apart, all three excellent including on my first night in Chinatown, near to my hotel – the Red Star Line Museum, down in the Old Port. Another long trudge, the Port closed up, wind-swept. Onwards. My feet and my spirit almost give out. Had enough. Search for a bus stop back to the hotel. But no, I’ve come this far. I will find it. I do.
And it’s worth it. 45 minutes to closing, they let me in for free. Antwerp, the departure point for European immigration to the New World at the beginning of the 20th century. Installations, drawings, photos, video film of the human stories – in the combination you can feel the wrench, the uprooting, the sadness and the courage of these hundreds of thousands hoping for a better life, so many escaping from poverty, persecution and war. And it makes me understand, all over again, the makeup and mindset that made the USA what it is and feel again both my unknown ancestors who came from Poland/Russia in the late 1900s and all those now caught up again in tidal waves of disruption and misery in the Middle East.
(A documentary watched from my hotel room on Channel 4, the night before, Undiscovered World, precisely showed the unbelievable stoicism of the human spirit in the Kurdish soldiers – women as well as men – defending Kobani from Isis. In the jut of the chin of the women soldiers `fighting for our rights, Isis think nothing of women’ – and in the beatific smile of a woman living with six children in a tented community on the Turkish border with no amenities, at squalor’s door, holding her new, just born baby, it told you everything you need to know about the will to survive.)
Antwerp, though almost, flattened me. I came back with a roaring fever, aching bones and two days in bed. But I’m so pleased I went in the end. It was touch and go. My pal, Jessica, should have been alongside me but she fell ill before. I so nearly didn’t go. But the brown and scrub and those atmospheres are with me still. Memorably so. And for the most part, those Antwerpen folk were wonderfully welcoming. I recommend a solo enterprise. It can lead you to the most surprising places, if at a cost…
ends March 29/3/2015