by Chris O’Connell
Finding the perfect soundtrack to Western Europe
As I got ready for my flight to Brussels in late April, mere weeks after its airport’s reopening in the wake of the tragic bombings of March 22, I felt determined to make my first trip to Europe perfect. As part of that, I loaded my iPhone with music to sync with my journey across the Atlantic. I would find the perfect sonic complement to the canals and waterways of Brussels and the Netherlands.
In Brussels, jet-lagged and weary, I listened to a garage rock band I like called Thee Oh Sees, a terrible choice for this moment, as I was much too tired for music in general, much less from a band whose frontman plays through a guitar pedal called Fuzz War.
Later that day, it was molasses-slow Houston rap in the bustling city of Antwerp. It didn’t quite fit, but I enjoyed the experience, especially Antwerp’s memorable Silvius Brabo statue, located in the city square and depicting a mythical Roman soldier tossing the detached hand of a giant into the River Scheldt. I thought about an enormous skeletal finger poking the bottom of our ship, the Amadeus Silver II, as we made our way toward Bruges.
In that Medieval town, we toured the Brouwerij de Halve Maan, an important Bruges landmark because its history dates back to the 16th century. They also brew excellent beer there. I was enraptured as I learned about the origin of strong Belgian ales, made so as a reaction to the country’s dependence on cheap port wine. Music was unnecessary, as the only sound we travelers needed was the trickle of an expertly poured Brugse Zot blond hitting our glasses.
I tried the uptempo, baroque funk of Prince’s double-disc opus Sign o’ the Times in the sleepy Dutch coastal village of Veere, on the Netherland’s coast of Zeeland. Prince, as much as I love him, was too strange for this quaint little village.
On a bus from the Amadeus through Rotterdam, I put my earbuds in after our local guide mentioned the destruction caused by the Allied bombings of the occupied city and its subsequent almost complete rebuild. Nothing was as incongruous musically and environmentally as my misstep in listening to Japanese metal band Boris, the crumbling guitars in strict opposition to the chrome veneered skyscrapers of one of the more modern cities in all of the Netherlands. Rotterdam was like a pop song — beautiful, shiny, and new — but alas, I didn’t have any Taylor Swift on my iPhone.
The one time I selected music correctly to sync with my environment was at the beginning of a four-hour cruise from Kampen to Amsterdam. After a leisurely day with my fellow Flying Longhorns passing under wooden bridges along the tiny canals in the carless town of Giethoorn, I had an hour or so to kill before dinner aboard the ship. I popped open a bottle of Rochefort 10, a delicious trappist beer I’d purchased back in Antwerp and was saving for this moment, and peered out the bay window in my room. I put on a mix that a friend had made for his wedding, and the first song that really worked was an unlikely one. The smooth sounds of British singer Sade’s “Kiss of Life” blasted through my laptop speakers as the Amadeus rolled along, the beat matching up almost perfectly with the ship as it rocked up and down on the waves.
Some of the most perfect moments were when I just listened — to the bells chiming in five-century-old chapels in Belgium, to bike tires on Dutch cobblestone, or just the general ambience of a region to which I’ve never been, and I’m lucky to have seen. There’s a certain gracefulness to just being, and next time I’m there, if I’m fortunate enough, I’ll just sit and let the sounds wash over me.
Photos (from second to top): The Silvius Brabo statue in front of Antwerp City Hall
A Bruges beer in a traditional goblet; Thinkstock
Keukenhof, located in Lisse, the Netherlands, is one of the world’s largest flower gardens.
The belfry of Bruges, a medieval bell tower.