We’d only met 2 hours before, at a Sunday matinee-concert. And during after-concert -lunch with our mutual friends we had not really spoken to each other, though we did share a few indecently boisterous laughs.
It was still early afternoon when our party broke up and after the general goodbyes I headed back home on foot alone, enjoying the touristy bustle of the city-centre and looking forward to an undisturbed afternoon of reading.
But when I heard running steps behind me, the fast click-clacking of high-heeled boots on cobble stones, I knew it was her even before I turned.
She chattered happily along - about the National Geographic documentaries she watched late at night, about the importance of fresh vegetables for a healthy stomach-tissue , about the parties at which she liked to dance till dawn - often making me burst into helpless laughter by the utterly unexpected humorous associations she’d make.
And though we hardly knew each other and though I could only relate to the fresh vegetables story (being neither a National Geographic addict, nor a party-goer, but quite partial to fresh tomatoes), the fact is that we walked those streets in a merry, companionable aimlessness.
Spotting from afar some intriguing allegorical statues we wandered into a small park, facetiously speculating about the Egyptian & Roman symbols on display. And when upon passing the Musée des Beaux Arts I mentioned my predilection for its 19th C entry-hall, she promptly made us veer off for a quick improvised visit, so that we found ourselves arguing in front of a grand but rather uninspired painting of the 1830 Belgian Revolution (I thought it was so endearingly 19th C pompous, she found it merely so idiotically pompous).
Now for all our impromptu shared enjoyment & delightful connectedness, it was truly amazing how little we had in common qua interests and likings. In the highest of spirits we subsequently discovered how we disagreed about a stunningly wide range of topics : be it about the merits of different cities (Antwerp versus Brussels versus London versus Paris) , or regarding our penchant for early or rather for late rising, a fondness of trains & trams versus one of cars, the importance or not for cities to have a resident river, ….
Now obviously, at the speed we were walking & talking, and with only little time left before we had to go our separate ways – I could not really go into all the subtle ramifications of my taste for trains, trams and city-rivers. Neither do real life conversations allow for footnotes to back up one’s arguments. Hence the present blog-post as an indispensable afterthought to make my point with all due elaborateness.
Though I wouldn’t want to rob anyone from “their car = their freedom” and though I (grudgingly) acknowledge the existence of a kind of “route 66” car-travel romance, I myself do stubbornly stick to the romance of trains.
Trains are so solidly part of the world and yet so inspiring for the imagination: undauntedly spanning their railway-network over the globe, generously offering grand stations as both destinations and places of transit. What would the unpractical, contemplative (but restless & combative!) melancholiac be without their faithful logistic support?
Ah, how grateful I am for the urgency and the sense of purpose that trains offer to eternally doubting would-be travelers ( 1) : punctually leaving at a particular hour for a particular destination along a particular track, while at the same time firing on the imagination with a tantalizing list of possible stops and transit-combinations.
And the caring solicitude of trains! yes, you may read a book, yes, you may dream, you still will be brought to your destination. And don’t worry about catering and hygienic stops, each station is a harbor providing for all possible needs. Not to mention the irresistible train-aesthetics: I so love the sights & sounds & smells of trains, tracks and stations. And also, obviously, I like the fact that they are so intimately linked with cities – yes, stations are eminently representative of their cities (2) .
And trains, however banal, still ooze the glamour of the great traveling adventures of a bygone age. Even their modest urban cousin, the tram, retains something of this particular traveling aura (3) (which neither individual cars nor collective urban buses posses)
So I wonder, has it something to do then with the fact that trains & trams are wedded to tracks? These tracks shooting off into teh distance, don’t they combine the re-assurance of purposefulness and of being embedded, with the promise of dizzying vistas…? Yes, aren’t train-tracks like rivers, flowing in a bedding?
Which, at last, brings us to rivers, and how important it is for a city to have one. In fact, in my inner atlas cities are referenced by their rivers, stations, cathedrals & art galleries. Cities of course are in continuous transformation, many an urban landmark does not even span the lifetime of a mortal (4) .
But then there is the immemorial permanence of a river, and the relative permanence of cathedrals, museums and stations. ( And the deplorable self-destructive character of Brussels is pitifully illustrated by its having torn down its magnificent 19th Century ‘Gare du Midi ‘ and its burying underground, as were it a vulgar sewer, of the river Senne.)
But so, a river – yes a river does grant an immemorial dignity to a human settlement. Apart from all commercial motivations for communities to settle alongside rivers, what remains is their sense of history, of openness, their promise of escape to far-off destinations, even a whiff of the great vast oceans. And the great bridges spanning them, so intimately related to the history of the city….
And their soothing streaming movement, whether or not it carries ships…... Seducing the wanderer to keep walking along the shore, hoping to attain some far-off vista. Or inviting the weary city-dweller to sit down on the quay and watching it flow, to sit down and be dazzled by the light sparkling on the water …
A couple of quotes I couldn’t bring up during the conversation
(1) Proust – « Noms de pays: le nom » : “J’aurais voulu prendre dès le lendemain le beau train généreux d’une heure vingt-deux dont je ne pouvais jamais sans que mon cœur palpitât lire, dans les réclames des Compagnies de chemin de fer, dans les annonces de voyages circulaires, l’heure de départ : elle me semblait inciser à un point précis de l’après-midi une savoureuse entaille, une marque mystérieuse à partir de laquelle les heures déviées conduisaient bien encore au soir, au matin du lendemain, mais qu’on verrait, au lieu de Paris, dans l’une des villes par où le train passe et entre lesquelles il nous permettait de choisir ; car il s’arrêtait à Bayeux, à Coutances, à Vitré, à Questembert, à Pontorson, à Balbec, à Lannion, à Lamballe, à benodet, à pont-Aven, à Quimperlé, et s’avançait magnifiquement surchargé de noms qu’il m’offrait et entre lesquels je ne savais lequel j’aurais préféré, par impossibilité d’en sacrifier aucun.
(2) Proust : « L’opération mystérieuse qui s’accomplissait dans ces lieux spéciaux, les gares, lesquels ne font pas partie pour ainsi dire de la ville mais contiennent l’essence de sa personnalité de même que sur un écriteau signalétique elles portent son nom »
(3) Amélie Nothomb – « Biographie de la faim » : « […] Bruxelles. C’était une ville remplie de trams qui quittaient le dépôt à cinq heures et demie du matin dans un crissement mélancolique, croyant partir pour l’infini. »
(4) Baudelaire : « la forme d’une ville change plus vite hélas que le cœur d’un mortel »
(5) Stefan Hertmans – “Steden, verhalen onderweg” : [Steden met een] “stroom in hun binnenste gesloten” [of] “steden die zich langs de stroom hebben geschaard” . [Rivieren die ]“openheid bieden in beslotenheid”. [steden] “zien door hun hectische bezigheden een ader stromen die zuurstof aanvoert, een vergezicht, een bron van wereldbewustzijn en geschiedenis, een altijd voorhanden zijnde mogelijkheid om te ontkomen - zowel voor de reiziger als voor de thuisblijver een geruststellende gedachte”
“cities with a stream enclosed in their centre or cities ranging themselves on the side of a river. […] rivers offering an openness in the inner-city. […] right through their hectic activities streams an artery providing oxygen, a vista, a source of world consciousness and history, and an always available possibility to escape – a reassuring thought both for the traveler as the sedentary local”