The weeks at work are long. Women crying in the office every day. Girls younger than I am already forced into marriages. 85 phone calls in one day and people who get angry on the other end, rant to me about the association, or break down when I can do nothing but say, “Yes, I understand. It’s hard.”
So I was ready to leave Paris, to escape and take myself where I could piece together the things I don’t understand, and sleep off the psychological hangover. I went to Brugge. I decided on Monday to leave on Saturday, did some desperate last emails on couchsurfing and bought a train ticket. At eight a.m I was pulling out of Gare du Nord, like I’ve done a dozen times before, only this time I woke up to windmills and stone walls.
The Brugge train station smelled like waffles and coffee. The Flemish street signs looked like Arabic to my unpracticed eyes. I eagerly found the number 16 bus like I was supposed to and asked the driver to let me know when we had gotten to the busstop I needed–the name all scribbled B’s and K’s and L’s that I had written on a page I ripped from my journal. The bus rumbled through the center of town, down the cobblestones and under the garlands strung in the streets, to a tree-lined path along a wide canal, and stopped. The driver told me we had arrived, I stumbled down into a pile of yellow leaves on the sidewalk-less side of the road and waited for the bus to pull away. I looked at the address I had written on the paper, crossed the street, counted the house numbers along the narrow doors, knocked.
A man with gray hair and blue eyes pulled the door open like he had no idea who I was. I stuck my hand out, “Bart?” I asked. He took the handshake, opened the door wider to let me in, offered me coffee and chocolate, and I sat at his counter and talked about life and life-paths like you can only do with a total stranger you will never see again.
A teacher from a family of two boys and five girls, like me, my host was someone I could talk to for hours, drinking Picon and wine as the time passed, and still feel like I would be interested in what he had to say after five hours had gone by. He knows the history of everything in Brugge, every building, every statue, and gave me a map where he marked out beautiful walks he thought I would like. Intellectual and kind, he would push a plateful of Belgian chocolates towards me if he asked a question and then noticed my face get sad, and he cooked me bread and chocolate mousse, fed me homemade marmalade at breakfast, took me to the beach early Sunday morning, sang joyfully in the house, playing endless amounts of Purcell from the stereo as we ate lunch. Truly, whether he was singing Rufus Wainwright as we walked along the North Sea Love is not a victory march. It’s a cold and it’s a broken halleluiah or describing his students and a recent book he had them read, he exuded care and a sense of heartfelt genuineness. He drove me to the museum in a hailstorm and to the train station in the rain; he told me to come back.
And with the memory of ice skating rinks and Christmas lights, the sweet beers and long paths with windmills along the canal, I do want to go back. I want to learn dutch and live there. Once we passed a cute stone house in the middle of a field, and Bart stopped the car, noticing the house was for sale, “That’s lovely!” He said. I agreed. “Ok. Let’s buy it,” he said. I said, “ok!” And I’m not kidding. I would. I am silly for that place, silly and entranced– stars in my eyes at its beauty, the swans on the water and gabled houses. I came to Brugge with an ache in my heart, and there it all disappeared. Paris never existed, I had no hometown, no past. There was only the yellow leaves fallen along my afternoon walk, only naked trees and rusting water. No world I have to see or understand or change. I wanted Brugge to keep me; I wanted to live and write its word.
Thus as I passed the weekend in a peaceful state, I felt determined to write Bart a poem before leaving. Surely I could spin out some creativity. One of the ideals of couchsurfing is to share things– not just a home but time and conversation and to inspire each other. He offered me his home and food and kindness; the least I could offer in return was a poem. So I wrote a poor poem about Brugge then gave it up, frustrated with its lame rhymes. Finally I went for a second long walk and sat along the canal as Saturday night fell. I started to write about May 1968 in Paris, and the words flowed and the aches became anger. I finished it long after the streetlights had come on, then walked back to Bart’s to eat dinner before going out for beers with some girls I had arranged to meet up with. The next afternoon I read it to him before he drove me to the train station, and I left it handwritten with a note on his wooden countertop. Goodbye. I hope we meet again.
A New May 1968, Paris, France
“Ils ont pris la parole,”
and the mayor cried as the streets screamed.
I, too, will rip the cobblestones into barriers,
empty the supermarkets,
make you long for gasoline,
for I have a voice and this is my word:
the Sorbonne is empty, I lecture in the alley,
my fight is a poster, a slogan, a song—
I want you to worship my mouth,
I am liberty, a new Marianne.
This is a student, the woman who dreams,
a May ’68 where my power is my story;
I will give you an oil fire,
paper will blow loose in the road,
and your politics will tremble,
as feet pound on the bridge,
a hat whips into the Seine.
With tangled hair and blazing cheeks,
the steps will give rise,
and there will be a fist and a shout.
I will make you eat the lessons, give me change,
as my revolution quivers down the length of the windows
to touch the doorknobs below,
and you will step out slowly:
my hunger beats on the door.