On the way driving from Amsterdam to Normandy I stopped for the night in Bruges, Belgium, for two reasons. One, my European friends Jan and Susan, who are renting my house, recommended it, describing it as a beautiful old medieval town really worth visiting. Two, a few years ago I saw a quirky British movie called In Bruges, about a couple of hit men waiting in the town for their next assignments. I really liked the movie, and the scenery was gorgeous.
So after two days of brutal travel and an hour lost in the streets of Antwerp, I arrived in Bruges in plenty of time to walk around and take a few pictures. In Africa it was completely dark by 6:30, but here I had at least two additional hours of daylight. It’s a city of canals, one of several that lay claim to being the “Venice of the North.” I walked along the water and watched the people biking on the cobblestone streets, families, couples, kids.
Bruges is as old as it is beautiful. Somewhere there are ruins of fortresses built in the first century. The Romans were here in the fourth century and the Vikings tried to take over in the ninth. The city charter was signed on July 27, 1128, and 100 years later Bruges was the main link for trade to the Mediterranean, leading one historian to call it the “chief commercial city in the world.”
It was still light at 8:00 and I stopped for a glass of wine at the not-so-old de Schiller, “restaurant and bistro since 1983”, and people watched. It was a beautiful night. I mentioned to my waiter how clean everything looked despite its age. “Nothing here is old, it’s all been redone many times,” he said. “This is not an authentic city.”
Mr. Chamber of Commerce moved on to another table before I could mention that without refurbishment, the city would be very authentic rubble by now.
There was a gentleman by himself at the table next to me, 50ish, thick and swarthy; I figured him as Greek. After my glass of wine arrived I caught his eye.
“How are you this evening,” I asked?
“I am well thank you. And you?”
“Just fine, thanks.”
“And what is your news?”
“Tell me some news.”
Greek was wrong … his accent was definitely Eastern European.
“Well, yesterday morning I was in Tanzania, and this morning I was in Dubai, and this evening I am in Bruges, having a glass of wine in this café’ and talking to you. Does that qualify as news?”
“No. But it is somewhat interesting. Am I to understand that you traveled from Africa to Europe by way of Dubai? Intentionally?”
I had to laugh at that. “Yeah, well, it must have been cheaper or something. In any case it gave me a chance to find one place on this planet I never want to return to.”
“Ah, you were not seduced by Dubai’s opulence! Are you American?”
“I generally don’t like Americans,’ he said, very matter-of-factly.
“You think we’re all loud and obnoxious.”
“That goes without saying.” He smiled for the first time. “No, my problem is this. You have everything, and you want more. You are …” he reached for the word … “greedy. And yet you waste so much. The world is melting all around you and yet you care nothing about the environment. And,” he said, his voice getting just a bit more intense, “you kill each other randomly and your solution to that is to defend yourself with more guns! You are such an immature people.”
I sensed he was looking for an argument. But there was also a twinkle in his eye.
“Why are you such cowboys?” he asked. “Why so many guns?”
“I suppose part of it’s historical, the Wild West culture, the way it’s always been,” I said. “But now it’s more about money, and the power that money buys you in Washington. But I disagree with you about the environment, most of us do care and do believe dramatic steps need to be taken.”
“And yet they are not.” The words hung there for a few seconds.
“I know,” I said. “We seem to be having leadership issues in America these days.”
We talked amiably for a while longer. He’s a professor from Poland on holiday with friends who went sightseeing elsewhere for the day. He was a good guy, really, with strong opinions about a place I love and miss. But walking home I couldn’t help but wonder what America will be like when it has buildings that are 1000 years old.