Back to writing

Today’s image: Sunset over Oostende harbor. The fastest way to work is via a ferry across the harbor, mostly used by tourists who can park for free on the industrial side and ferry to the city center. The six steel columns in the left of the frame are attached to the ship. It’s called a jack-up vessel. Those legs push down into the sea bed, lifting the ship out of the water, making it a stable platform for heavy lifting. In a few months she will begin assembling the turbines of Belgium’s next offshore wind farm.

Hello readers! It has been quite a while since I’ve had any travel stories for you. Not that I haven’t had any travels, but I’ve been distracted by other media. After my brief endeavors into video and audio, I’ve realized that I prefer the written word far more. It’s not always the best way to take in information, but in terms of putting ideas straight and reinforcing my own memories, there’s nothing like it. It seems to be the purest form of collected thought. There’s no worrying about my voice or the frame or monitoring the recording equipment. Really the only limitation is the speed at which I can type/write, which doesn’t always keep up with my thoughts. But I’d rather have that than the opposite situation, which I find myself in every time I open my mouth.

Video and audio have their advantages, and I’ll use them when appropriate. But for now, it’s back to the written word. And not a moment too soon! Indeed, several moments too late. I’m already embarked on my latest adventure.

A few weeks ago, I made a week-long stop in New York City to see some family and finalize my paperwork for a visa. Early this month, I arrived in Belgium, where I’ll be based for the foreseeable future. A former classmate-now colleague kindly allowed me to stay in his spare bedroom in his apartment in Gent for 10 days, but a couple weeks ago, I moved into my own place in Oostende (more about the city further down). For the first time in a while, I have a space where I truly feel comfortable and at home. Part of that comfort is the fact that this place is very quiet. Oostende is a quiet town this time of year already, and my courtyard-facing balcony of an apartment building on a one-way side street means that it can get deathly silent in here. I really like that.

One thing that has become more and more clear over the past few weeks is that I don’t do well in big crowds. Busy cities, packed streets, crowded rooms. Not for me. I’ve known I was an introvert since I learned the word, but despite my training to be more socially adept, I’ve gotten more in touch with my introverted self. Susan Cain, in her book Quiet, mentioned some research into extroversion vs introversion that has helped me understand what makes someone introverted or extraverted. They can actually figure out with pretty high accuracy your level of extraversion if you’re when you’re an infant. Some study examined how babies react to noise. Depending on how much noise it took to get them to react, they were classified into two major groups: “high reactives” and “low reactives”. The former reacted strongly to a little noise, while the latter required a lot of noise to get them to react. Can you guess which ones grew up to be introverts?

Here’s a hint: many of us introverts hate the sound of chewing. Even a distant sound of someone’s barbaric gnashing can set us grinding our own teeth in forced civility. We react highly to small stimuli.

That bit of knowledge has helped significantly in understanding why I find it so difficult to enjoy places like New York City. The noise is overwhelming. The crowds are consuming. The lights are often unbearable. When I don’t have anywhere to be, it can be an interesting ethnographic exercise to observe these strange creatures who thrive in such an environment. But when I have reason to join the crowd, to dodge aggressive taxis, to squeeze into crowded subway cars, or match the impatience of the long-adjusted New Yorker, the input is simply too much. Either I find my frustration and annoyance bubbling over in rage, or I simply shut down all emotions, including those of tolerance, patience, respect, and generosity.

I don’t think that New Yorkers are mean people. Indeed, I was able to spend a week there because of the generosity of my family who took me in, fed me, guided me, and provided a listening ear. But they can often come across as rude and inconsiderate, selfish and intolerant. I think I understand. Even the low-reactive types, who feed on the energy of a bustling sidewalk or cramped cafe, can only take in so much and give back so much. We only have the capacity to show care and deference to so many people. The thousands of strangers one comes into contact with in New York City have little hope of joining that small circle, and so at best, they treat each other with the indifferent cordiality of social convention.

The time in New York was definitely enjoyable. Explorations of the seemingly endless museum collections, lively dinners with family, and jazz clubs brightened by musicians who would be the talk of the town in just about any other part of the world. But I’m glad to have found somewhere a bit quieter to settle.

Oostende isn’t the place you would expect an adventurous twenty-something to enjoy, but it works for me. It’s a tourist town right in the middle of Belgium’s short North Sea coast. The local demographic probably has a median age decades my senior, but that means people turn in early. Like me! The coffee is pretty good, and the dining is endless. The city center is built for people, not cars. The nearest mountain is two countries away, but the sea is only a block away, and that seems to provide the necessary contact with Nature. The train station, bus station, and tram stop are only a 10-minute walk. From there, I can be almost anywhere in Belgium in less than two hours and almost anywhere in Western Europe in a few more. There are more kilometers of bike paths than I will be able to explore. The weather isn’t great for cycling right now, but it will probably be summer before I can put away the money I’ll need for the kind of bike I want anyway.

This place is also brimming with history. The town of Oostende dates back to the Middle Ages when this area wasn’t even connected to the rest of Europe. Until about 600 years ago, it was an island, on which the villages of Westende, Middelkerke, and Oostende (West-end, Middle-church, and East-end, respectively) developed around the fishing trade. Improving hydrological engineering and the money from trade allowed the people of the town to build a series of dikes and canals that protected it from the sea and connected it to the mainland. This is actually the second time I’ve lived in a strategic Medieval trading post. Visby constantly changed hands as it was the central port for trade across the Baltic. Oostende was sacked multiple times for its strategic position on the North Sea, especially when the port of Antwerp was blocked. Between 1601 and 1604, it became the site of the bloodiest battle of the Eighty Years’ War, which culminated in Dutch independence from the Spanish Empire in 1648. The siege of the city by the ruling Spanish Empire took just over three years and ended in over 100,000 dead or wounded and was a major loss for the Dutch and English. The current layout of the city center (where I live) was set by the 18th century, but most of the buildings from that period were destroyed in a magazine explosion in the late nineteenth century and when it changed hands during both of the world wars in the first half of the twentieth century. Most buildings appear to be from the post-war period. And that’s what I’ve learned just from Wikipedia! Lots more exploring and learning to be done!

And I’ll have to brush up on my war history. I know I’ve heard the names of many of these battles, but I didn’t realize that they were in Belgium: Liège, Antwerp, Ypres, Mons. Actually, much of the first World War was fought in this region! Much of World War II centered around the German offensive and the Allied counteroffensive through the Ardennes, the forested region in southern Belgium. So much to explore!

Also, this town just got a lot smaller. I finally found myself a bicycle. It’s not much, but it’s a pair of wheels, and it will get me a lot farther a lot faster than I could go on foot.

I’ll be sure to take lots of pictures, and I’ll try to post them on here. But many of them will show up first on Instagram and Facebook.