Divinity in Brussels

If you’ve ever taken a bus somewhere overnight, then you know that the prospect of sleep is laughable. Like life-sized sardines we were packed away, close enough to suffer the most intimate details of our seatmates anatomy for seven hours. Cramped and crooked, without headphones or hope.

So it was that I traveled to Brussels.

We passed through Dover, lamenting the darkness. We passed through French customs, and lamented our American passports. We boarded a ferry across the English channel, and lamented the inebriated, neon-clad university students leaping about in the stairwells and curled up on tables.

We arrived at 6 am Central European Time, and lamented 3 pm hostel check-in times. We were somewhere deep in the heart of the city, and it was pouring rain. I promptly panicked.

Turns out, things weren't all bad. Sure, the underground station was populated with strange shapes in sleeping bags, and help desks were nonexistent. And yes, everything was in French and Dutch. We had only a vague idea of where our hostel was or how to get there, and no WiFi for Google Maps. But we happened upon building-wide murals, artistic graffiti and even a string of chairs bound by chain and hanging from a crane; my first 5 minutes in Brussels was like walking through an Art Nouveau museum.

I’ve already detailed many of my adventures in Belgium: finding friends from Glasgow, trouping through the rain looking desperately for a place to urinate, debating the pros and cons of traveling alone, and drinking beer. So much beer.

But for as good as the beer was, it wasn’t what pushed Brussels and Bruges to the top of my spring break experiences list. Rarely are the relatable, describable, bloggable experiences the experiences that hold the most value in retrospect. London was vast. Venice was idyllic. Amsterdam made my head spin. Brussels took what I thought I knew about travel and life and myself in relationship with others and threw it out on the pavement, alongside the un-trashcanned stacks of garbage.

There are several reasons that I think this. I took countless photos of the Cathedral di Santa Maria del Fiore and David in Florence, but felt closer to God in the fifteen minutes I spent in the refugee church in Brussels. The church was an imposing building that welcomed us in from the rain initially out of curiosity. Inside it was quiet and musky; the stacks of visitor information pamphlets seemed to be the paper version of a stern hall monitor, briefly and effectively answering our questions while firmly daring us to take pictures that wouldn't leave us feeling like utter moral failures.

I still took some, mostly because of things like this:

I don’t speak French. This poster is clear enough in any language.

God cropped up several times in Brussels, which is several times more than I had encountered him in the past half-year. One of these encounters was a half-drunk conversation with a Spaniard named Alex who worked at our hostel. He was cleaning the cigarette butts out of the ashtrays and overheard my companions’ conversation touching the corners of the existential. Religion is all the same, he said. Just do your best to be good and everything will fall into place from there. His face looked funny when he said it, as if it were the most natural answer in the world, and I felt a little jealous at his certainty.

Passa Porta, the “International House of Literature,” brought me God in the form of Joshua Ferris’ novel To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, an introspective, stream-of-consciousness rambling about life and death from the point of view of a nihilistic, manic-depressive dentist living in New York. My biggest takeaway from the book: the mouth is the great metaphor for the inevitability of death, one of many, and how we deal with these gateways into our own mortality is a part of what makes us human. For some, that’s religion. For me, I’m not sure. There were many moments when To Rise Again had me nodding along in agreement at Ferris’ observations, but the matter of life and death is far from settled in my mind.

“The most unfortunate thing about being an atheist wasn’t the loss of God and all the comfort and reassurance of God — no small things — but the loss of a vital human vocabulary. Grace, charity, transcendence: I felt them as surely as any believer, even if we differed on the ultimate cause, and yet I had no right words for them.”- To Rise Again at a Decent Hour

Religious or not, he’s right. We all feel those occasional tugs from death, most of them just casual reminders that everything is impermanent. And try as hard as we can, trying like I am now, they escape record or description. Brussels was that for me: a physical manifestation of religious experience as dictated to me by a dozen close friends, teachers and role-models, mixed with twenty years of guilt and confusion that I can’t begin to describe. But all of this in a good way. Like someone had sat down in front of me, grabbed my hand, and proceeded to paint exactly what I was thinking and feeling onto the canvas. Utterly inexplicable and wonderful at the same time.

But I’ve rambled on enough. Further up and further in. I left introspection and philosophy behind, to be replaced with the writhing immediacy and full-bodied joy of old friends in Italy.

P.S.- Here’s a picture of a waffle.

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