A couple of things I wanted to say about cities & rivers & trains & trams, but didn’t bring up during the conversation.

We’d only met 2 hours before, at a Sunday matinee-concert. And during after-concert -lunch with our mutual friends we had not really spoken to each other, though we did share a few indecently boisterous laughs.

It was still early afternoon when our party broke up and after the general goodbyes I headed back home on foot alone, enjoying the touristy bustle of the city-centre and looking forward to an undisturbed afternoon of reading.

But when I heard running steps behind me, the fast click-clacking of high-heeled boots on cobble stones, I knew it was her even before I turned.

She chattered happily along - about the National Geographic documentaries she watched late at night, about the importance of fresh vegetables for a healthy stomach-tissue , about the parties at which she liked to dance till dawn - often making me burst into helpless laughter by the utterly unexpected humorous associations she’d make.
And though we hardly knew each other and though I could only relate to the fresh vegetables story (being neither a National Geographic addict, nor a party-goer, but quite partial to fresh tomatoes), the fact is that we walked those streets in a merry, companionable aimlessness.

Spotting from afar some intriguing allegorical statues we wandered into a small park, facetiously speculating about the Egyptian & Roman symbols on display. And when upon passing the Musée des Beaux Arts I mentioned my predilection for its 19th C entry-hall, she promptly made us veer off for a quick improvised visit, so that we found ourselves arguing in front of a grand but rather uninspired painting of the 1830 Belgian Revolution (I thought it was so endearingly 19th C pompous, she found it merely so idiotically pompous).

Now for all our impromptu shared enjoyment & delightful connectedness, it was truly amazing how little we had in common qua interests and likings. In the highest of spirits we subsequently discovered how we disagreed about a stunningly wide range of topics : be it about the merits of different cities (Antwerp versus Brussels versus London versus Paris) , or regarding our penchant for early or rather for late rising, a fondness of trains & trams versus one of cars, the importance or not for cities to have a resident river, ….

Now obviously, at the speed we were walking & talking, and with only little time left before we had to go our separate ways – I could not really go into all the subtle ramifications of my taste for trains, trams and city-rivers. Neither do real life conversations allow for footnotes to back up one’s arguments. Hence the present blog-post as an indispensable afterthought to make my point with all due elaborateness.

Though I wouldn’t want to rob anyone from “their car = their freedom” and though I (grudgingly) acknowledge the existence of a kind of “route 66” car-travel romance, I myself do stubbornly stick to the romance of trains.

Trains are so solidly part of the world and yet so inspiring for the imagination: undauntedly spanning their railway-network over the globe, generously offering grand stations as both destinations and places of transit. What would the unpractical, contemplative (but restless & combative!) melancholiac be without their faithful logistic support?

Ah, how grateful I am for the urgency and the sense of purpose that trains offer to eternally doubting would-be travelers ( 1) : punctually leaving at a particular hour for a particular destination along a particular track, while at the same time firing on the imagination with a tantalizing list of possible stops and transit-combinations.

And the caring solicitude of trains! yes, you may read a book, yes, you may dream, you still will be brought to your destination. And don’t worry about catering and hygienic stops, each station is a harbor providing for all possible needs. Not to mention the irresistible train-aesthetics: I so love the sights & sounds & smells of trains, tracks and stations. And also, obviously, I like the fact that they are so intimately linked with cities – yes, stations are eminently representative of their cities (2) .

And trains, however banal, still ooze the glamour of the great traveling adventures of a bygone age. Even their modest urban cousin, the tram, retains something of this particular traveling aura (3) (which neither individual cars nor collective urban buses posses)

So I wonder, has it something to do then with the fact that trains & trams are wedded to tracks? These tracks shooting off into teh distance, don’t they combine the re-assurance of purposefulness and of being embedded, with the promise of dizzying vistas…? Yes, aren’t train-tracks like rivers, flowing in a bedding?

Which, at last, brings us to rivers, and how important it is for a city to have one. In fact, in my inner atlas cities are referenced by their rivers, stations, cathedrals & art galleries. Cities of course are in continuous transformation, many an urban landmark does not even span the lifetime of a mortal (4) .
But then there is the immemorial permanence of a river, and the relative permanence of cathedrals, museums and stations. ( And the deplorable self-destructive character of Brussels is pitifully illustrated by its having torn down its magnificent 19th Century ‘Gare du Midi ‘ and its burying underground, as were it a vulgar sewer, of the river Senne.)

But so, a river – yes a river does grant an immemorial dignity to a human settlement. Apart from all commercial motivations for communities to settle alongside rivers, what remains is their sense of history, of openness, their promise of escape to far-off destinations, even a whiff of the great vast oceans. And the great bridges spanning them, so intimately related to the history of the city….

And their soothing streaming movement, whether or not it carries ships…... Seducing the wanderer to keep walking along the shore, hoping to attain some far-off vista. Or inviting the weary city-dweller to sit down on the quay and watching it flow, to sit down and be dazzled by the light sparkling on the water …

A couple of quotes I couldn’t bring up during the conversation
(1) Proust – « Noms de pays: le nom » : “J’aurais voulu prendre dès le lendemain le beau train généreux d’une heure vingt-deux dont je ne pouvais jamais sans que mon cœur palpitât lire, dans les réclames des Compagnies de chemin de fer, dans les annonces de voyages circulaires, l’heure de départ : elle me semblait inciser à un point précis de l’après-midi une savoureuse entaille, une marque mystérieuse à partir de laquelle les heures déviées conduisaient bien encore au soir, au matin du lendemain, mais qu’on verrait, au lieu de Paris, dans l’une des villes par où le train passe et entre lesquelles il nous permettait de choisir ; car il s’arrêtait à Bayeux, à Coutances, à Vitré, à Questembert, à Pontorson, à Balbec, à Lannion, à Lamballe, à benodet, à pont-Aven, à Quimperlé, et s’avançait magnifiquement surchargé de noms qu’il m’offrait et entre lesquels je ne savais lequel j’aurais préféré, par impossibilité d’en sacrifier aucun.
(2) Proust : « L’opération mystérieuse qui s’accomplissait dans ces lieux spéciaux, les gares, lesquels ne font pas partie pour ainsi dire de la ville mais contiennent l’essence de sa personnalité de même que sur un écriteau signalétique elles portent son nom »
(3) Amélie Nothomb – « Biographie de la faim » : « […] Bruxelles. C’était une ville remplie de trams qui quittaient le dépôt à cinq heures et demie du matin dans un crissement mélancolique, croyant partir pour l’infini. »
(4) Baudelaire : « la forme d’une ville change plus vite hélas que le cœur d’un mortel »
(5) Stefan Hertmans – “Steden, verhalen onderweg” : [Steden met een] “stroom in hun binnenste gesloten” [of] “steden die zich langs de stroom hebben geschaard” . [Rivieren die ]“openheid bieden in beslotenheid”. [steden] “zien door hun hectische bezigheden een ader stromen die zuurstof aanvoert, een vergezicht, een bron van wereldbewustzijn en geschiedenis, een altijd voorhanden zijnde mogelijkheid om te ontkomen - zowel voor de reiziger als voor de thuisblijver een geruststellende gedachte”
“cities with a stream enclosed in their centre or cities ranging themselves on the side of a river. […] rivers offering an openness in the inner-city. […] right through their hectic activities streams an artery providing oxygen, a vista, a source of world consciousness and history, and an always available possibility to escape – a reassuring thought both for the traveler as the sedentary local”

Milan, October 2004

It’s not the worst state to explore a city in, the flu-feverish one. It’s a state which warps the imagination and hones the sensitivity.

In normal 37°C body-temperature conditions, would that Bellini Madonna have drawn tears from my eyes? Would an Italian night porter have managed to break my heart...?

My arrival at Milan-airport, with a headache & a deep fatigue, didn’t augur too well. And then that spooky underground, with its flickering neon-lights hardly relieving the darkness, and with its sickly green signs fostering sea-sickness. Add to that a London-like fog and Parisian-style traffic above the ground , and only the strictest flâneur- discipline could keep me from getting straight into bed upon arriving at the hotel.

So I walked and walked these bustling Milanese streets, to the rhythm of intense traffic. Cars competing with motorbikes in narrow passageways, incongruously old-fashioned streetcars grinding their way through the city. But most stressful perhaps were the lavish shopping streets, with the throngs of fashion-conscious shoppers hurrying by.
My head was buzzing, exhaustion washing over me , I was craving for some peace & quiet, when, all of a sudden, at a chance sideways look through an arched entrance, a fata morgana appeared: a lush palazzo-garden with a peacefully murmuring fountain.

Apart from these delightful palazzo’s strewn all over the city, there are also the many churches to offer relieve to weary travelers. Most of them are of the thick-walled, low-ceilinged Romanesque sort. And more than any triumphantly soaring cathedral, these semi-dark & brooding churches are a harbor for lost & confused souls . They offer protection, like a Madonna della Misericordia spreading out their heavy cloak over the huddled pilgrims…

Though the fog didn’t ever dissipate that first day, the greyness was redeemed when at night the lights came up. Coughing & sneezing I marveled at this Milan by night. The foggy haze had turned a mysterious blue grey, pairs of street-lamps started glowing like little moons, light refracting a hundredfold on the wet pavements and a smell of wet autumn leaves was released by the drizzle.

I stayed at a small hotel on a piazza, where the friendly welcome had soothed my feverish nerves. The grey-haired woman at the reception desk, perhaps the owner, had that friendly-aloof look of one who, though without remaining illusions about the world we live in, has not succumbed to cynicism but has developed instead a wary compassionateness.

I had a corner-room, fully exposed to the roar of a busy Milanese crossroad. In the evenings, exhausted after a full day of roaming, I usually collapsed on the bed, turning on the TV-set to drown out the traffic. So there I lay, leafing through the Brera Pinacoteca catalogue, contemplating thoughtful, unsmiling Madonna’s while every once in a while I glanced up to the TV-screen where quite another kind of feminine appearance – shrieky, bosomy & scarcely-garishly clad- was flaunted .

In the mornings I rose early. While early-rising is obviously a typical trait of the combative melancholiac (who has learned to fear the consequences of sleeping-in: indolence & sinful sloth), I must admit that during this stay in Milan there was another motivation to get me at the breakfast table before 7.30 AM ...

Breakfast for early guests was served by the hotel’s night-porter, who was dark, tall and elegant. . .

But however graciously and obligingly breakfast was served by this night-porter, I was at first mostly struck by the attitude of cautiousness and reserve vàv the clients (who were single business men & happy couples), as if they needed to be screened for possible bad reactions.

So handsome a person, moving about with such grace and dignity! And yet no doubt daily exposed to reactions ranging from curiosity to contempt, or worse. Because he was a she, or she was a he, or someone in-between. Her tall build and strong hands did betray “biological maleness” . But the way she moved & spoke, her sheer way of being was of a delicacy “usually identified as ‘female’” .

(rhetorical aside : isn’t it rather instructive, and a pity, that not more men have claimed “traditionally female prerogatives” in the wake of women tentatively seizing “traditionally male prerogatives”?).

But mind you, she displayed none of the over-the-top feminine camp often associated with transvestites. No, she was merely, discreetly & elegantly ( and quite attractively indeed) , being her vulnerable unclassifiable self.
And yes, meeting her was quite heart-breaking, though perhaps not in the conventional romantic sense ( but then, breaking hearts are quite beyond conventions, aren’t they - well, my breaking heart is in any case).

I suppose there was an element of mutual recognition – different variations of androgyny? (mine is just the run-of-the-mill tomboyish one) . Or perhaps, as a lone Bellini-chasing traveler, I stood out as much amongst the business men and happy couples as she did? Or was it the sight of all these Madonna’s and Pietas in churches and galleries, which had sharpened my empathy? Anyway, we did connect and there was something about her that moved me deeply.

But apart from smiling “buongiorno’s”, meaningful glances and exchanges regarding tea to be served with or without lemon we didn’t even speak till Sunday, my last day in Milan. I was up early again and this time no business men were around.
When I walked in, she looked up and positively beamed at my ‘buongiorno’. We eyed each other nervously , discussed again the tea and then I read on in my “Proust à propos de Baudelaire” while she shuffled some papers at the desk in the entry hall.
I was cursing myself for my silence, but then she came back into the breakfast room, clumsily busying herself with this and that, looking my way. So I finally mustered enough courage to speak to her, enquiring about her night duty, about her life... We spoke for maybe 10 minutes, until her colleague for the day shift came in.
And then we shook hands (hers a quite manly handshake), looking each other questioningly in the eyes. And she wished me a good day and I wished her a good night.

And that was that. That afternoon I flew back to Brussels.

(about three months later, waking dismally early on a Sunday, I looked up the phone-number of the hotel, and … dialed the number. But again & again, the line was engaged . So it was not to be.)