Today’s featured image: heatwave in Oostende. The water is pretty cold (about 65F/19C), but when it’s 95F/34C outside, that feels pretty good. This part of the world isn’t built for those temperatures though. As these extremes become more common, places like Belgium will need to start converting their buildings to be more like those once fit for Spain.
It has only been in the last few weeks that I’ve actually made the effort to clean the grimy surface of the small marble-topped table before I sit down. The rough layer of spilled sugar and cake crumbs can be distracting, but it’s the only cafe in town that serves a half-decent espresso. From the outside, the cafe looks like a sleek yet retro boutique. Large LED bulbs fashioned to look like antiques hang exposed from the ceiling, giving the off-white walls a warm glow. Classic photos of famous musicians and a healthy population of green plants give the space a bit of life, but the life from outside intrudes. Spiders hand in their webs in all of the corners. A small cloud of flies hangs about the brightest lights, occasionally pestering coffee-drinkers and taking tastes of the sugary residue on the marble-topped tables.
The owner is a friendly young man named Johan. He’s also the only employee, sitting at the counter six days a week. On Tuesdays, I occasionally run into him at the gym, working on his body-builder physique. We speak very little, but he’s happy to open up. Ashley’s natural inquisitiveness has cost her hours of lost studying when she doesn’t have the heart to interrupt one of Johan’s soliloquies on current affairs, local politics or his favorite roasteries. I’ve been more reserved, popping in my headphones and allowing him to return to his almost perpetual position, seated behind the counter, head lowered to his smartphone. He breaks that position only to make a coffee, hold vigorous debates with his two regulars, or light up a cigarette outside but not far enough from the door to prevent the smoke from wafting in.
He’s not the only one to make the oversight that is only perceived by us non-smokers. He seems to be a pretty typical Fleming. (I’ll speak here of Flemings instead of Belgians more generally because I’ve only had any experience with the Belgians living in the northern region called Flanders, who speak a dialect of Dutch called Flemish.) There is often a customer contributing to the never-empty ash tray on the table in the make-shift patio that takes up half the sidewalk in front of the cafe.
The floor-to-ceiling cafe window makes my seat just inside a perfect viewing location to observe the locals and tourists traversing the grey-brick street leading to the beach just a couple blocks away. Most are overweight but not in the way Americans are. Life in a city first laid out in the 12th century and rebuilt in the 19th century requires a good deal of walking. Despite the fact that most Flemish cities are like this, Flemings love their cars. Even with the daily ubiquitous traffic jams on the highways, it’s still often faster to drive than to take a train. It’s unpredictable though. Being an hour late to a meeting because of traffic is not uncommon, and being a few minutes late to everything is normal.
Oostende is a tourist city. In winter, it’s quiet. Only the geriatric locals remain. When I arrived in December, I was quickly convinced that my 28 years was at least a decade below the median age. It was far from exciting, but the sea kept the weather mild, the stone and cement buildings stayed warm, the limited traffic was reminiscent of a small town, and the handful of medieval buildings, grey under the winter clouds, gave the place an enchanted feel. As spring arrived, the weather warmed enough to sit on the jetty and listen to the waves. The walking path drew a few locals but not yet the tourists. The days grew refreshingly longer, and the anxiety of freezing my fingers to my handlebars subsided. But the joy of change was short-lived.
Where I grew up, spring meant budding trees on the sidewalks and the return of the songbirds. In Oostende, there is very little vegetation. The coast is an endless wall of vacation condominiums that slowly fill as the temperatures go from warm to hot. As the weeks pass, the beaches fill with tourists in the day. After they leave the waves, choking the paths I use on my evening commute, the seagulls have their turn at the ice cream, waffles, baguettes, prepackaged meats and cheeses, and bags of junk food strewn across the manufactured beach. The daily meals are supplemented by the weekly feast as the locals put their bags of waste on the sidewalks on Sunday night to be picked up Monday morning. The gulls take what the humans wouldn’t, tearing open the plastic bags, eating what they can, casting the rest across the sidewalks and streets, and fighting viciously over the tastiest prizes. With the mating season in the spring and the pressure to bring back food for the chicks throughout the summer, the birds grow more and more aggressive. More than once have I seen a gull with a three-foot wingspan collide with a tourist as it tries to swoop in to knock a wax-paper boat of french fries from their hand. Day and night, the birds shriek their calls of intimidation, screaming for attention for what purpose I have no idea. From my apartment, they are always audible, often loud enough that I need to shut my balcony door to hear the person on the other end of the phone conversation.
Most people in Oostende don’t seem to mind the avian pests. They drown out the noise with their own. In the shopping streets, 80’s American pop blasts from speakers, and pop up bars on the beaches compete with their own retro mix if they haven’t been outblasted by a weekend music festival, thumping until midnight or later. The wealthy (or heavily indebted) middle-aged tourists from France, Luxembourg or the Netherlands rumble along the narrow streets in their classic sports cars, the nouveau riche rev the engines of their brand new sports cars, thrashing them for the two seconds it takes to catch the ambling line of cars, held up by a horse-drawn carriage carrying tourists pretending not to mind the smell of horse piss. Packs of twenty-somethings from North Africa or the Middle East shout over each other in the Arabic dialects that to me always sound like they’re angry. Throngs of people, speaking a dozen tongues (and on their own behaving perfectly reasonably) coalesce into a mass of half-naked bodies, some with personal boomboxes, raising their voices just to be heard over the rumbling human mass.
The supermarket nearest the beach can’t handle the volume; lines at the registers back up through the aisles of packaged sweets and cheap alcoholic beverages. I never seem to learn when to go to the store, hitting the flood every evening as tourists recede from the beach and other locals return from their day jobs.
I’ve welcomed the recent drop in temperatures and return of the grey drizzle that feels much more characteristic for the North Sea coast. The streets are noticeably quieter, and the flood of drivers seems just a touch thinner and more patient. I like to think that the summer is actually coming to an end. The tourist season was made enjoyable only by the fact that I had imported a friend. Had Ashley been unable to spend nine weeks in Europe this summer, I may have tried to flee even earlier than I did. I commented to a colleague one particularly muggy afternoon that I may have survived another winter in Belgium, but I would not have lasted another summer.
Being in Europe used to help me keep sight of the reasons I’ve embarked on this career in renewable energy. Especially in Scandinavia, it’s easy to see people trying to contribute to the cause of sustainability. Stockholm hosts dozens of Tesla taxis, many Scandinavian universities have degrees in sustainable energy or development, government officials clamor over each other to be the most “green”, it can be cheaper to own an electric car than one with an internal combustion engine, and we buy all of our wind turbines from Denmark. Most importantly, though, being in Scandinavia allows one to forget that the greatest challenge to sustainability is population.
The low countries are a stark reminder of what happens when you have fertile agricultural land. Most of the people here are, on balance, good people, just trying to live their lives free from suffering and if they’re lucky, to find a bit of meaning in the endeavor. But they crowd together, piled high in apartment buildings, spread densely across the countryside. Over the last few millennia, the forest gave way to farmland, and now the farmland has given way to housing developments to be reached by cars, mobile boxes of isolation carrying the commuters to work for their brief and cordial interactions before returning home to entertain their evenings away.
I have no lens into these lives. It was mostly my own fault, but I never made friends here. Too much time at home and too little effort to learn the language kept social interactions shallow and limited. As I sit and enjoy my final espresso at Fitzgerald Coffee, I can’t help but wonder how it might have been different.
A young woman sits in the low chair on the other side of the narrow boutique. Behind her thick-framed glasses, she wears an expression of impatient discontent, but she has been here longer than I have, slowly sipping her sparkling lemonade. She is constantly distracted by some silent conversation behind the smartphone screen that looks large in her small hands. Ashamedly, I take the opportunity to steal lengthy glances. Her open petticoat and tight-fitting jeans belie a fit physique on a petit yet womanly frame. Were I not already in a wonderful relationship, I hope I would have the courage to say hello. I feel a sort of connection, a sort of sympathy, sharing with this stranger the sense of being surrounded by people yet feeling alone. She’s clearly connected to someone on the other end of those messages, but my long looks catch no hint of joy from it. She waves away a fly from her sweet drink, puts down her phone and stares at the clock above my head. Is she waiting or just killing time? What would she rather be doing right now?
I’ll never know. She puts her phone away, grabs her wallet, and stands to pay and leave. As with almost everyone in this country, I’ll never see her again. It’s a common excuse to reserve the effort and anxiety required to make new friends, but I’m not sure it’s a valid one.
The cafe fills with groups. Two couples and two families of three. One couple settles at a small table against the wall when they receive their drinks. They chat amicably. They look into each other’s eyes as they explain their thoughts, often smiling, laughing to show their approval. They stop briefly to think and sip their coffee. I know that their marble-topped table is dirty, but they don’t set their hands on it. The flies go after their cookies, but they swat them away thoughtlessly. The floor is dirty, and Johan pays more attention to his phone than any customer, but neither of them seems to notice. Nor do they now seem bothered by the crowd of tourists or cigarette smoke wafting inside or the fact that the centerpiece of their town is a sleazy old casino or that their country is best known for beer, chocolate, and over-sugared waffles. They’re too distracted by each other to notice such trifles.
I’m often asked what I think of living in Belgium. I don’t have particularly strong feelings about it. It’s got all the basics: passable roads, decent public transit, modern medical services, and most everything you’d expect from Western grocery stores. But it’s not nearly as refined as other places I’ve lived. There’s an amateurishness about businesses that I couldn’t see past, and there really wasn’t anything attractive to see or do.
Maybe I didn’t see enough of the good things about Belgium, but maybe I just saw too much. I did see the nice craft coffee shops and the thick forest of the Ardennes and the warm sand of the beach and fairy tale alleyways of Bruges.
But for much of the time, I didn’t have anyone to distract me from seeing everything else that balances it out, so instead of really enjoying my time in Belgium, I didn’t think much of it.
It’s not that it’s a bad place. It’s alright. It’s just not great.
I mean… it’s fine, I guess.