I woke up in my Brussels room five minutes before the alarm went off, with a nasty feeling of head congestion that felt like I could barely breathe. As I got up and about it dissipated, and I hope the blame can be laid on the air in the room rather than some developing malady.
Since I want to be in Amsterdam for the Hallowe’en weekend, I decided to head up there today via the intercity train from Brussels. Today Brussels was rather gray, with a light morning coat of rain. Rather than getting lost by taking the wrong tram, which I did my first night here, I was very proud of myself for catching the proper tram and making it right into Brussels Midi station without a hitch.
Then I stepped into the train station ticket area and within a couple of minutes spoke with an agent who stamped my ticket and told me where I should board … in ten minutes. Ten minutes? What? No lines, no waiting? No pointless security checks? For this American that was pleasant news. Off to platform 20 I went…
The first class car was definitely nicer than the second class cars, but the second class cars looked more than adequate. Between the woman laughing maniacally in the back of my car, the three loudspeaker warnings about pickpockets, and the sketchy dude standing between the cars staring in at each of us, the ride was off to a strange start.
Then a very nice train manager arrived at my seat, checked my ticket and even volunteered some travel tips. Shortly thereafter, a modest food cart made its way through the carriage, and my request for iced tea was cheerfully met with a canned Lipton product that tasted like a mix of sweet Georgia tea and Pellegrino water.
Farmland, ponies – lots of ponies. Are ponies a “thing” here?
One guy a few rows back was blowing his nose and hacking with such intensity that his eardrums were obviously made of Kevlar. The couple in front of him moved up a couple rows, settling opposite me, to avoid catching the plague. We exchanged a look that seemed to acknowledge our mutual discomfort with the sick man’s racket. Their strategy of plague avoidance did not work, however; the relocated man began coughing extensively and would later die.
North of Mechelen it briefly looked as if i were in an American suburbia, with apparently pre-fabbed homes and manicured lawns not much unlike what you’d see outside Phoenix or San Diego. But that madness quickly retreated and gave way to more of the beautiful countryside I’ve been soaking up these days.
We would make several brief stops along the way. The southern Antwerp station had bicycles chained up for an entire city block. The racks were overflowing, even to the point where latecomers had improvised and locked their bikes to signposts and anything else that didn’t look like it could be easily lifted. In my brief visit, I saw one strip of gorgeous, dark gothic buildings – but overall Antwerp looked like a strong, disheartened version of Brussels. If Brussels had a cousin who was a socialist metalworker, Antwerp might well be it. It seemed like a city of people who worked hard and either knew showing off was meaningless or didn’t know how.
As we sped out of Antwerp toward the Dutch border, the apparent style of life softened again. There was more farmland, lots more – geese, cows, sheep, pumpkins, vines, horses – and trees that casually boasted they had witnessed the rise and fall of empires. Roadways sliced through the open farmland with trees on either side; tree-lined bowling alleys with matchbox-car-balls rolling toward unseen pins. The sun began to break through the clouds and an odd blue mist clung to the ground.
As I was contemplating the ponies chilling in their cool blue sauna, I noticed trees on either side of the train track… and the weird fact hit me that the ponies were definitely thinking we were a super-fast-train-ball in our very own bowling alley … and before I got too far down that mental rat hole, we crossed what I suspected was the national border. This suspicion was soon confirmed by the appearance of red-jacketed Netherlands authorities working their way down the aisles. While reviewing my ticket and passport, the sole question he asked was “You come from United Staates? West or east side?” I’d never heard that expression before and sat silent for a moment. Is this a test question? Should I tell him about the ponies? The bowling alleys? The plague spreading through the carriage? Sir, people are dying and you want to talk about neighborhoods in New York? He repeated the question, and rather than complicate things – we were both better off that way, I suspect – I told him I was from the east coast. He seemed to believe me and scanned my passport, then a couple bar codes from a laminated placard he was holding, and disappeared.
More farms, more bowling alleys, and a solitary goose stood quietly in the middle of a dozen acres, having decided that claiming it all as his own was worth the cost of the loneliness. As the lone real-estate-magnate goose shrunk away, a pinkie finger of the north sea passed gently under us, a boat with a skip in tow spreading the adobe-tinted water as it went.
We made a short stop in the lush, busy, colorful, vine-wrapped town of Dordrecht. The train station’s army of silver R2-D2 trashcans stood guard amongst the blues (archways and stairwells,) reds (handrails,) and yellows (power cords and hoses.) Stick-on birds were placed neatly down the row of clear plastic dividers that separated the platforms. It was hard to tell if they were put there by the station designers or a very meticulous, bird-obsessed vandal. As we rolled out, I noted the graffiti artists here were even more serious about their work than the station designers. We quickly reached our highest speed yet and crossed a larger finger of water, this one much wider, brighter and deeper. On land again, a man in gray biked up one of the bowling alleys near the tracks.
Outside of Rotterdam, a blue spiral staircase that led to nowhere overlooked an outdoor running track. Around the track stood a group of people with a dozen or so excited and identical dogs. They seemed to be training for something (the dogs and the people.)
Windmills now; both in the form of clustered cold, steel ones that were all business – and lone bulky wooden ones that rotated slowly around a golden clock or other ornamentation in their center.
Fall was here, but only the occasional orange tree gave it away. Canals and standing water became more common as we rolled further north.
We passed a girl’s soccer team at practice, but too quickly (even for me) to figure out which one was the hottest. Which reminds me – to you who have e-mailed requesting my analysis of each city’s women (you sickos – you penis-bearers), I do plan such a piece (despite the high cost it will incur) but will wait until the end. I promise that your earnest nomad is taking copious notes and researching the subject as deeply as civility allows.
Now, I’m off to find a space cake….