Antwerp is… just wow.
I know Europe sounds like a smorgasbord of Paris, Barcelona and London, but it is not.
Paris, and I should know, can not offer you… experiences. It offers sights, and moments of ‘oh my god I’m in Paris’, but you will always be mere spectator. Paris does not need you and it lets you know it, even as you’re stepping on your last metro to the airport, it will say ‘Attention a la marche’ mechanically for what is not not only the umpteenth time, but once more in an infinite series of times to come. Paris, in short, makes for great pictures of places half the planet has visited before you, and will do so long after you’re gone. (and Barcelona is really just a souvenir shop of tapas and… did I say tapas already?)
Antwerp, on the other hand, is made of you, and me, and it will call for your participation on a daily basis. Zomer van Antwerpen (Summer of Antwerp) does not lay out iron towers for you to wait in line and climb. It builds hippie communes in the woods right outside the centre, and says ‘Hey guys, we sort of patched together these hammocks, wooden platforms, benches and a bar out of re-used scrap. And, we thought you might be hungry too, so we’ve got this little volunteer kitchen going with world food at prices even your mom can’t compete with. And you know what would make it even cooler? If you’d bring some picnic cloth or wine or mainly, yourself and your friends’. And so we do. Every summer. We, heart-feltly cool people of Antwerp, show up to enjoy each other’s company. It just so happens the city of Antwerp built us a few circus tents and fireplaces and trade-as-you-wish book shelves.
The rest… is familiar.
Raph shows up at my door. I jump in his car. I throw his USB stick somewhere to the back of the car and plug in my iPhone. Today, Frightened Rabbits – The Modern Leper, so loud we couldn’t even hear ourselves honk. Park the car on the river side where every year, the Cirque du Soleil swings by for chocolate and giggles. We go into town.
We open random travel guides at random pages at the Fnac, and discuss the merits of Cuzco over Hanoi. We toy around with speakers on demo and comment a Philip Roth book or two. We’ll grab a sandwich at Panos and mention, for the 100th time, that we really should find an even cooler place to lunch, ever since the too-good-to-be-true Vapiano chain closed its Antwerp branch, for reasons beyond our comprehension; it was always packed with kindred souls.
We’ll walk down the antiquaries street and today, discovered an art gallery slash french cuisine slash limited fashion store slash music shop slash we’re-psyched-you-love-it-but-please,-no-pictures-locale. We nod in complicity and ambulate around the place in childlike wonder. Raph or I or both will shout across the store once more that Antwerp just doesn’t compare, and 8 minutes of hopping later, Raph will say ‘On bouge mec?’, and I’ll say ‘yep, let’s roll’, and onwards we go. Enter the Diesel store, even though even their armbands are beyond our budget and joke about how making you feel inferior is part of the clerk’s job description. We’ll still flip a price tag or two just to fuel our jokes. On and on, we’ll explore our own city in a non-stop mixture of familiarity and incomprehensible surprise. Either the walls move when we’re not looking, or this city is just alive in ways we can’t keep up with. Three stores later, Raph correctly points out we’re not in a buying mood at all, sales or no sales. I’ll say ‘okay sure, let’s hit Zomerbar, but first I need to get my glasses tended to’.
We’ll march over to Theo, the Belgian brand of glasses deluxe, where, though I didn’t buy mine at their store nor did the previous glassmaker fit my lenses particularly well into the frame (or so Theo’s friendly clerk will point out, with a sigh reserved for the love of craftsmanship and the pain of lack thereof) they will happily fix me up. The lady will first look at me, front and back, to determine just how well my glasses currently fit me. Then she’ll remove them from my head (a sensory experience I only otherwise experience when a girl takes them off from me in bed), and head back behind the counter where she will minutiously proceed to shape them back to perfection like the gentlest of chiropractors. She will charge me nothing for it. Why would she. We’ve just collectively made the realm of designerly glasses a better place. It’s a win-win-win situation, an outcome embedded in the blueprint of this town’s psyche. On to the Zomerbar.
We’ll order fresh mint tee, then fancy the day’s penne dish with salmon sauce, then I’ll ask for a plate with just bread and humus, though neither figure on the day’s menu, and get charged ridiculously symbolic prices for it, then come back for a coconut lemongrass curry as I strike up a conversation with the guy that I mistook for last night’s guy, but no, apparently ‘tapas guy’ only comes in at 21.00.
Then back to the hammocks for more semi-siestas, in between hilarious statements (not unlike our facebook statuses) and barely audible music from my iPhone that I craftily got to hold steady on a randomly cut tree trunk. It is not a chair. It is not a table either. It is, along with the cushion-filled potatoe bag currently serving as a nearby kid’s toy, a something-something that the city of Antwerp and the organizers of Zomerbar must have considered ‘perhaps fun to have lying around’, for purposes later to be defined by the people of Antwerp themselves. In Paris, such potato bag would come labeled as ‘Ceci n’est pas fait pour s’asseoir dessus’, whereas in Antwerp, the chief commander of potato bag utilization is a 6 year old with endearing ADHD, otherwise referred to as ‘Kids who like to play extra long’ here where I grew up.
We’ll stay long enough to be part of the regular crowd, agree that the dreadlocked bartender is cute as fuck, comment once more that was makes this place truly magical, is the fact that people age 65 or 15 show up and find each other’s presence ‘cool’. And remember how last night, we stroke up a conversation with this 50-something teacher who overheard our french and toasted hers and her husband + friends couple mojitos to our youth, and how we wondered just how much of our outspoken sexual and depraved chat she just understood. Ponder that for a minute, then pick up the conversation again right where we left it, on the subject of male jealousy and the scenario’s in which breaking a barstool on somebody’s back is a respectful act of communication, really. Then too, we might feel like moving ventures, and at my request, Raph will scout the internet on his blackberry (which I christened ‘the fat poo of a nigger’ for its black ugliness), and conclude that there doesn’t seem to be much playing at the cinemas tonight. But we’re in doubt.
And we do feel like being entertained. So we’ll drive right back up in the car and drive home so he could grab his macbook so we could go online so we could watch trailers of movies to watch. 20 minutes later, all in his car, Natasha, we’ll watch an episode of The Office, the one where Dwight gives a Mussolini-like speech to an audience of salesmen. Then we’ll lie comatose in his car some more, to the soundtrack of Mumford and Sons. Then hunger will strike, and I’ll explain that I’m in dire need of Red Bulls (plural), because my last night’s experiment of sleeping in his car so as not to wake up my mom did not afford me much sleep (though fantastic dreams).
Another ten more minutes of comatose staring at the dashboard windows and we’ll make a snap decision. We should eat healthy, dismissing the Quick hamburger joint nearby. We used to hang there all the time, the perfect meeting point at walking distance from his and my house. Sometimes bring a guitar, sometimes just for girl talk. But hey, we’re hungry for healthy stuff, and it doesn’t take long to happily admit that, again, no one will better cater to our needs than the Zomerbar.
Drive back up there, park the car, walk inside, wait in line, get the evening’s dish, canteen style, join more strangers at a table, get called up by his parents, they’re here too, near the bar. Come by, say hi, they came with his little cousin, who Raph swears she’ll soon break hearts, and I think ‘wow, three generations at one table’. And as if to drive the point further, his father laughingly announces that Raph’s grandma, age 96, recently decided she’d like to find herself a new lover. (I am not making this up). Off we go. To the Dansing Chocolate, our favourite cafe.
We still haven’t seen the end of Knocked Up (the movie we started watching last night in his car until I dozed off and told him to just leave me on the backseat with his car’s keys, and we’ll meet again in the morning.) We show up at the cafe after I grabbed a Red Bull at the Pakistani shop and search for table nearby an electricity plug. Open up the MacBook, let Raph order a beer and start the movie again. Watch it some more until a deliriously hot girl enters the cafe. It is God’s obscene tease. Raph tires of the movie and I say ‘then let’s move cuz I’m cold at this table’ and sit ourselves down so that I could afford a better view. Another round of mint thee and we talk of women. Drinks were had. I saw panties. Had to drink my mint thee with my eyes covered so as not to stare. They left. We stayed some more. I’d accentuate the often hilarious punchlines we nailed by slamming my fist on the table. Then go get another handful of M&M’s from the counter. Off we go.
Back to the car. Another round of The Modern Leper, so loud… so good. We’re almost home. I quickly tune in The Killer’s – Read my mind. We arrive home but I insist Raph parks a bit further away so as not to make my dog bark as I segue into the When you were young. We shout the lyrics at the top of our lungs and agree to meet at 10 AM at the tram stop tomorrow morning. We’re taking the same train to Delft. He’s visiting Monique, my former accomplice in lingerie and sex talk, and now Raph’s. As for me… another day, another town. I’ve got stuff to do in every European country anyway. And I come online to find Gilberto on Gchat, my mexican hombre who got a grant to study in NYC. I’ll come visit. Right now, I need to sleep. It’s just another day Antwerp.
—Originally posted on Facebook on the 18th of July 2010