A couple days in Antwerp

I love the way the seasons work. We’ve passed the apex of Winter, when Life, mostly unnoticed by us poor modern mammals, held still for a long night in perfect frozen equilibrium, a clear blue liquid depth, from which we are now slowly rising back towards the green air of Spring and the mythic yellow air of Summer.
But that warmth is still a long way off, and this Saturday morning was a loving reptile, slow to awaken in the cold but we don’t mind waiting. Sluggish buses, reluctant dog-walkers with arms clenched tightly to their sides, and a sun so bright and cold it can’t possibly be the same entity that will redden white Belgian posteriors on vacation in Spainin a few short months.
This winter has actually been remarkably mild, the cold only coming in Friday night. Thursday and Friday were borrowed from Autumn, which was great timing on two days where I taught in the morning, then had several hours of free afternoon before an evening class.
Thursday I wandered towards the University district through an urban crevasse of building facades, not quite united on a single plane and each unique to themselves, but united in a texture of Continental age, with walls of bricks chipped by centuries, or weathered gray stone showing a grayscale of accretions from generations of rainfall.
Cobblestones under the tires of small gray fuel efficient cars, with breathily metallic exhalations from trams that pass at an unexpected variety of velocities. Opposite a tidily imposing storefront of Romanesque columns that now shelters a gay bookstore, I found one of those perfect European cafes to stop and warm my hands.
The walls are rich dark wood chosen in full expectation of centuries of service, lightened here and there by mirrors. There is a coat rack. A silvered man in a well made sweater is reading the paper. Good coffee is served in small curvaceous cups, each coming with a small cookie. Two cubes of unrefined sugar in one of those little jars used in hotels for single servings of confiture (nothing so crass as jam). I wonder if the waitress is reading any of the same texts I read in college.
This place has nothing to talk about with Starbucks.
Three tables are occupied, two languages, neither of them English, the man reading the paper is alone. His sweater exults in cold misty mornings, and his hands are worn and confident. After a half hour he is joined by a younger woman with large startled eyes, whose own coat has repurposed some of its functionality to fashionability. He greets her with a nearly wordless calm that is clearly paternally pleased to see her. Happiness leaks out of him in small smiles during their conversation. His eyes disappear completely during his rare laughs, which seem like a newly acquired skill in a formerly harsh life.
On Friday I go to a funky young place for dinner. The façade is neon green, the front door handle is an indoor-rock-climbing hold, the music is Johnny Cash, Nina Simone, and company. I have the tortellini, with zucchini, sun-dried tomatoes, artichoke hearts, arugula, and quality mozzarella. A little pesto drizzled on top of the hearty tomato sauce.
Outside the window a rainbow arcs down in shouting defiance of the northern European grayscale onto the theater building across the square where schoolboys are skateboarding with impressive skill and minimal image-consciousness.
Both Thursday and Friday were astrologically blessed, with lessons to be learned from observation, an Ipod with impeccable timing, and flirtatious weather that drizzled precisely the right amount of precipitation as I walked across Antwerp to my evening class Friday night.
Yup, I’m going to miss Belgium.