One of the rules of travel, I have discovered, that you get stupider the longer you're away. A second rule is that, no matter what you buy or do not buy, your bags get heavier and bulkier by the day. We are now packing for the last time in Belgium, having stayed overnight at the comfortable (American-style) Radisson hotel across from the train station, and our small roll-along suitcase is fatter than it has ever been, and both our backpacks heavier by far. In an hour or so, we head across to the station to board the Eurostar for the return trip to London. In the meantime, let me try to catch up with a short version of the long piece I erased yesterday, with a touch of the wrong key...
Ghent, then. I believe we left off with a promise to tell the story of the short train ride to Antwerp, which turned out to be a long train ride to Antwerp. Patience. We'll come to that. Fist there's the story of the long tram ride in Ghent...
Too cheap to invest in the 17 euro per person breakfast at our hotel, we stepped across the street to a charming little cafe where we were served an excellent cup of coffee and a croissant for a mere 5 euros, total. Then went in search of an ATM machine for cash--some of them reject our cards over here because they lack the electronic "chip" the European cards are now universally equipped with. Newly flush with cash supplied by what my niece used to call a "hole-in-the-wall," we followed the tram tracks to the nearest stop, intending to ride down to the closest stop to the two main Ghent museums. Unfortunately, no one--I mean, literally no one we asked, and we asked many of our fellow travelers on board the tram--could tell us which stop was closest to the museums, with the result that we found ourselves at the end of the line before finding out that the right place was, in fact, two stops ago.
Our odyssey was not over. A long walk through a rather lovely park--mostly trees shedding autumn leaves and providing a moist padding underfoot--brought us to what was obviously the big, traditional museum. But we had chosen, first to visit the contemporary branch, perhaps appropriately named SMAK--as in "smak in the eye." All we saw was a large building with huge neon lettering that seemed to identify it as 'TRACK." A perambulation of the long block around the main museum produced nothing--until we ran into a tour guide leader who informed us, usefully, the TRACK was, in point of fact, SMAK, which had but recently hosted an exhibition of that title. Silly us.
Our SMAK visit included the re-installation of a 1970s show, "Chambes des Amis," a collection of installation works by a handful a celebrated conceptual artists of that period--Daniel Buren, Mario Merz, et al--all interesting enough but, we found, a bit old hat. Upstairs, we found a series of rooms devoted to the work of individual contemporary artists--Joseph Beuys, Bruce Nauman and a number of others. A good way to get acquainted with an artist's work: we particularly enjoyed the Belgian painter, Luc Tuymans, whose work fits in with that "modest" quality I was writing about the other day; and an old favorite, Wim Delvoye, who uses the traditional skills of craftsmen--in ceramics, stained glass, wood carving--to create wry comments on contemporary culture. In this case, I especially like the concrete mixer created out of the elaborate carving you might find, say, in a baroque lectern or pulpit.
(I do have some thoughts about the stark juxtaposition of the traditional masterpiece art in which Flanders is particularly rich, and the work of our 20th and 21st century contemporaries, but no time for this now. Perhaps on my return to Los Angeles in a few days' time.)
Back to our hotel to pick up bags, then onto the train station via taxi, whose driver was the one to inform us, cheerfully, that the train ride would be no more than twenty minutes. And yet... the amazon lady ticket collector on board the train informed us, with what seemed to us like malicious glee, that we would have to change trains at the next stop and wait for a different train, because of work on the tracks. A long wait at the small, country station; then the slow, slow train from there to Antwerp, with a pause at every stop along the way. Our twenty minute turned out to be closer to four hours.
Ah, well. The story sounds a bit lame now. Probably not worth waiting for. Sorry about that. I'll stop here for the moment, and catch up with our Antwerp stay when we board our last train, back to London.