There are few things in life as intoxicating as a summer Sunday afternoon in Flanders. Waking up as our plane touched down at Zaventum, my eyes were startled by the radioactive green of the fields and woods. When I left Minnesota, our trees were just beginning to blush with the first greenish gold hues of Spring, but here in Belgium it is already full on summer. The temperature was in the upper 70’s, and the air was thicker than I have breathed in 6 months. I felt like I was drinking in the oxygen.
It’s been over a year and a half since I have been here, and I had forgotten how much I missed it. Riding the train from the airport to Leuven, I could see families, and old couples out walking on the paths through the farm fields, or riding bikes & horses. I am always struck by how such a secular country as this has been able to maintain a sanctity around the Sabbath that our supposed Christian nation could only dream of. Stores are closed, families are at home, and the day revolves around time spent with family, walking, talking, and sharing a meal.
When we got to Leuven we dropped our bags at the hotel and walked into the city center. The church bells echoed down the sun baked cobblestone streets, the brick buildings glowing orange in the sunshine. It seemed a sin to hurry, but it was already late afternoon, and I wanted to have every minute I could to sit in a chair in an outdoor café, and soak in the moment. So what if I was going on 4 hours of sleep, in this heavy summer air, with voices dripping like drops of water in a fountain, the whole world seemed dreamlike.
This was my coworker’s first visit to Leuven, so I was happy to share in the moment with him, like it was a secret family recipe; the crowds of people sitting at tables, the Flemish waiters with their Tin-Tin hair styles, the old Flemish hippies playing guitar on the streets for money, the old couples sitting side by side in silence with matching glasses of Hoegaarden on the table in front of them, young parents pushing strollers, or shepherding toddlers down the uneven stones of the Oud Markt, and finally the heartbreaking sight of single old people sitting alone at a table with a drink, looking glassy eyed into the distance thinking of lost spouses and children. For a peasant country, with dirt under its fingernails, Flanders can still be a romantic place.
We found a spot in the sunshine, and had a few beers, and a light dinner as we talked, and I spun stories about my previous visits here. I have been such a lucky man. By all accounts I should have never left Western New York, much less wandered into such beauty in an out of the way corner of the world as this. I do not deserve to be so lucky. Even if the price of the experience has been selling my soul to my dark corporate overlords, there are times when I wonder if I haven’t gotten the better end of that deal. Years from now, when the work that I have done has been washed away like chalk drawings on a sidewalk, these memories will remain like warm coins in my pocket.
The afternoon slowly faded into evening, as we wandered the streets back to our hotel. Church bells still echo through the dusk, and the birds are trilling in the garden. Sitting outside on the patio of the hotel garden, the murky green water of the Dijle flows steadily past, and the sleepiness finally becomes too great to resist. Tomorrow will be a day of cars, and diesel exhaust, and serious meetings in itchy clothes, but for these few last moments of sunlight, I am still lost in my dream.