An Antwerpian Oddity

Took a day trip to Antwerp on Friday.  Which had me thinking…when was the last time you said, or heard someone else say, the word “twerp”?  Had to be in the 1980s, right?  Someone’s older brother perhaps?  Maybe that mean fifth grader, when you were in fourth?  Does the word belong to the decade or the grade level?

Anyway, that’s not what Antwerp refers to.  Antwerp is hand-throwing.  Yeah.  “(H)and” which is pronounced “hant”.  The verb for “to throw” is “werpen.”  And here I’d led you to believe Belgians were such civilized people.

The supposed icon of Antwerp is a statue of a guy (naked of course) throwing someone else’s hand.  His name is Brabo, and in the “Act Like A Local” section of the  “free map for young travelers”  is says: “Never take pictures on the ‘Grote Markt.‘  The statue of Brabo on the square might be described in every tourist guide as our biggest hero, but many Antwerpians can’t even explain why he’s throwing that hand.”

(The story is that the giant Antigoon was charging too much in taxes, and maybe cutting off the right hands of people who couldn’t pay, so Brabo cut of Antigoon’s hand and threw it into the river Schelde.  Poetic justice, medieval style.)

For me though, Antwerp’s most famous (perhaps infamous) representative was found in a secondhand bookstore.  We were walking up Hoogestraat (High Street) which is one of those awesome pedestrian boulevards lined with shops and statues and interesting people.

Quick tirade:  These streets are so obviously awesome, but so few Americans towns have them.  The best one I know of is in Boulder, Colorado, but even my dear Santa Cruz, California has cars driving down theirs (that is, standing still on theirs while the drivers get pissed off), and pretty minimal character to the shops, since the exorbitant rents mean only chain stores can afford to be there.  Even small towns in Belgium often have streets with little or no vehicle traffic, lots of shops, people riding bicycles and walking around, and, oh yes, the fry-shops.

But anyway, me and the lady were walking along the street in Antwerp, and both being book- and bookstore-lovers, went into the first one we saw.  It had that wonderful smell of old books, and the walls were lined floor to ceiling with odd titles, flaking covers, and worn spines.

There were no English titles that I could see, but in one corner I found a travel guide for California from the late 80s.  I am always curious about what the “experts” recommend for places I know, so I was leafing through it, trying to find the section on my old stomping grounds (when I found it, it featured a prominent photo of about a dozen people dancing naked in the surf.  I lived there 28 years and never saw a dozen people dancing naked in the surf.  Well, okay, maybe I did, but rarely.)

There were two men in the store, presumably one the owner and the other one of those customers who spend a whole lot of time there.  The one I suspect was the customer came over and we were soon chatting away.  He was very friendly, and told me all about his travels to the US, and how he had visited many battle sites there.  Turns out he was excited because he had thought I was perusing the military section, which was next to where I’d found the travel book.  Then it got weird.

He mentioned that the (Civil War) battle sites he visited in the US were from the “War of Northern Aggression.”  Suffice to say, that roused my curiosity a bit.  His words were fast and his subject changes faster, and I was carried along like roadkill stuck under your SUV’s front axle.   He quickly moved on to a statue of George Washington in Richmond, Virginia, where he is holding a symbol from Roman times of absolute authority over life and death.  Then it was how the Italian fascists used the same symbol.  Then it was that the Nazis are incorrectly associated with fascism because they were National Socialism.  True, but it seems safe to guess that most people who get upset about this distinction…hmm.

I lost a lot of the substance of his rapid-fire and semi-fluent words, but was left with the clear impression that this guy has a half-hidden thing for the Nazis.  I’m guessing his apartment has a knife or twenty, maybe a luger in an often-opened display case, and has read Mein Kampf several times, with more sweet dreams than nightmares.

I was reeling a bit, trying to make sure I was correctly understanding him, when I realized he’d asked me a question.  He wanted to know my line of work, and when the conversation moved to the difficulties of getting a work permit he somehow segued that into an anti-immigrant rant during which he told us how juries were finding in favor of car-jackers because the cars stolen were too fancy and had therefore invited the theft, and that the government issued a list of cars that were sufficiently fancy that stealing them was understandable.

Then it got worse.  Over 18 only beyond this point, please.  He told us how the other day a judge acquitted someone “from a certain Africa country” who was riding on the bus, “got excited“, masturbated (complete with demonstrative hand gesture) and ejaculated on a 10 year old boy.  It was clear what he thought of “these people.”

Now, hopefully you can guess what I think of anyone who does any such behavior, but to somehow extend one incident into a justification for judging an entire segment of humanity, that is the problem.  If we are going to take insane and sick acts by an individual as condemnation for an entire skin color, then there is no one left innocent on the planet.

Suffice to say, my girlfriend and I were wide eyed and edging towards the door, for more reason than just his substantial body odor.  We made our way with cold demeanors but lively steps out the door.  At some point the had given us a little printed out flyer, on the back of which he wrote a website, and on the front he put a phone number.

I was scared to see what it was, but it turned out to be basically an infomercial for a vitamin supplement that he credits with restoring his knee after his years as a paratrooper, and he wants me to start selling for him in the US.

So that was that.