A rainy autumn day can be so full of promises of urban delights. So, while sipping my tea and peering out in the grey damp morning, I just knew this was going to be a perfect day to go to Antwerp – a city still carrying a whiff of the Northern port romance so suited to lone rambles through the rain.
– Surely y’all now fondly remember that iconic street-photo of a lonely sailor ambling through rainy Brest (“Il pleuvait sur Brest ce jour-là), huddled in his sailor-coat, a wet cigarette dangling from his lips. In my early twenties (on a train tour of European port-cities) I actually went to Brest, looking in vain, alas, for port-romance in a very unromantic city – but I did redeem my stay there by sending a sailor-postcard to a love-sick gay friend back home. –
But well, back to the present day rain and over to riding a bus, packed with people & umbrellas. Hmmm the romance of a bus on a rainy day! J With its clouded windows through which one glimpses trails of shimmering lights. And with its cozy silence – people do seem to be less unpleasantly boisterous when it rains, folded as they are into their coats, absorbed in their head-phone music, already bracing themselves to step out again in a gust of rain.
So I admit, to me this dark and dripping world feels quite sheltering, benign even in its glimmering hazy-ness, so different from the inquisitive glare of a brighter day. What could be more soothing than the permanence of that swooshy rainy noise that envelops everything? And what more elegant than the spectacle of people moving gingerly through the streets, avoiding puddles & umbrella clashes …
I’d set out for an Antwerp gallery tour, and this one brave gallery had not joined its peers in the gentrified Southern part of town, but had settled closer to the Northern districts, near to the former port (the actual port is now so hugely industrial that it has moved out of the roaming circle of a pedestrian Antwerp visitor).
It had been some 20 years since I last wandered through this neighborhood (am again referring to my twenties’ infatuation with the romance of urban decay) and I was surprised to see how little it had changed. Yes, some streets had been overhauled, some squares spruced up – but there was still that peculiar atmosphere of oddly provincial cosmopolitanism: cafés catering to locals and seamen, bric à brac stores hovering between old-fashioned grocery stores and discount import-export stores. Not at all the aggressive & anonymous atmosphere of for example run down station districts full of temporary shops and thrills. Rather a typically Antwerp, folksy local flavor - from the lopsided two story houses over the Flemish shop signs to the Antwerp dialect spoken by un-hurried passers-by.
Wandering about, I managed to get lost for a while, ending up in a no man’s land of criss-crossing highways, car dealer showrooms, bland-faced buildings. A desolate landscape under a threatening sky, cars noisily speeding by. And on came a strange elation, almost akin to the sensations triggered by the spectacle of a thunderous fiery sea. I felt happy too, in these stark surroundings, unburdened by expectations.
Then I drifted back to town, shivering in the grey drizzle, hands in coat pockets, just like the lonely men prowling these streets. Um, rather many lonely men prowling these streets … Well, either they were heading for the red-lights district or else just innocently taking a stroll from the nearby seamen’s house (7.5 EUR for lunch and 22 EUR for a room, prices “on presentation of a valid seamen’s book).
Oh I did get to take my gallery tour too! And it was lovely to discover the latest work of Bert De Beul: small black watercolor images arranged in pairs. He paints the presence of objects and rooms and buildings when we are not there, their contrasts and shadows. And he paints them with such a caring attention …. charging their banality and emptiness with meaning, or longing, or remembrance?
I loved peering at those intensely silent images, arranged slightly askew in their frame. If comparisons have to be made: something like a cross between Hopper (but in B&W) and Xavier Mellery (early 20th century Belgian artist who drew and painted l’âme des choses).
And then I finally ended up in the trendy South-district, did some galleries there too. And had to flee from one: with its gaudy red carpet, its loud Astor Piazzola music, a gallery keeper who stuck out the price list at once, and feeling closed in by paintings of archetypical seductive women in pastel colors or reddish hues.
I took refuge in a trendy café, that is actually more welcoming to unhip people than its trendiness would suggest. With its old-time wooden furniture, the floor tiles, the lamps it has retained a relaxed atmosphere. And the sound-mix is just right for a reader ensconced in his or her book : a blend of music and chatting voices and the general clank & clamor from dishes and cutlery.
And then the rainy day ended with some splashes of late-evening sun, grazing rooftops, dazzling windows and almost drowning out the city’s neon lights.