May 23, 2006

transiting through Brussels

On the plane to Brussels, the passengers were returning from an exotic place. The women carried heavy breasts and jowls, and bad skin. They seemed happy to be going home. The men ate quickly and demanded more wine. The stewardesses were blonde and tired. They gave out newspapers in Flemish. The headlines spoke in huge type. The news was dire, stocks all over the world had taken a dive.

The plane descended. The winds were ferocious and the fuselage groaned under the strain. The plane kept sideslipping and then dropping. Passengers grew quiet. The woman next to me held a girl of two or three. The woman had a cheap, worn look. I wondered if she was a prostitute, I don't know why. She was petrified in those last seconds before the plane touched down....

The streets of Brussels seem particularly modern, generic, clean. In the first miles on the train from the airport the only trash was a Kleenex tissue on the rail beds. On the train a nun sat perfectly still, in her perfectly pressed tunic. She wore wire rim glasses and neither a serious expression nor a calm expression. She drew a pen out from beneath her tunic, from a row of pens hanging in a little engineer’s shirt protector. Everything was just so. When the conductor asked for her ticket her left eye shuddered; there was a problem. She drew out a document; the conductor examined it and passed on. The nun sighed in relief.

The place seemed dreamlike in its cleanliness but then after a few miles, the first signs of the city to come — graffiti, in what was one continuous mural running across the side of every coach in the yard, across the ground level of every building, every structure, shed and statue, all the way to gare de nord.

And then, what city were you in? You couldn’t make it out. A squat WTC, some modest 30 story glass buildings, it could be Croydon, the insurance capital of England, or somewhere in the old East Germany, and as drab and dated as an old school tie.

Dinner in a sushi house in the center of town. A dozen tables, with mostly kids, save an older man in the corner and some business men in short sleeved shirts at a table for six. The atmosphere was quiet subdued, sedated, The look of people with everything, not used to working hard, and with not a lot to say about their luck. Another glass of beer perhaps? Not even that. But in the middle of the room, some rough riders. A man in his late 40s, an Asian woman. They stood out. He, blowing smoke rings, she casing the food on other tables. They seemed slightly seedy, up to some small no-good.

In the streets, an occasional horn. In the hotel, staff joked quietly, with nuance. In the internet cafe, only a few monitors were taken. Outside a Cineplex, where no one was coming to see The Da Vinci Code, a woman in a veil stood holding a man up in her arms. He appeared to be drunk or sick. late 20s. She was about his age or a little older. She was holding this man up in the middle of this plaza, in a heavy drizzle. The man in her arms was dressed in black rocker jacket and pants, with a
gold chain. He had the look of the Maghreb as well, someone who had stolen their way into the country a few years ago, or joined cousins and got work, got in the life, and then, like some rare animal from the desert unable to manage in a cold country’s zoo, was dying.

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