This morning, I have left Antwerp by train. The beautiful weather from yesterday is gone, replaced by the one that I would have expected for this region and this time of the year: A rainy grey, but at least not freezing.
It was good to get on the train, to put some distance to the port and the city. And the landscape changed slowly, from the urban to the industrial, from the commercial to the suburban, then fields and forest, creeks and towns. I feel better in these more rural settings. Although Antwerp did not strike me as extremely loud in term of ubiquitous advertising and commercial overstimulation, I was able to feel that hollowness of the commercialized city life.
Now I sit in a side chapel in the gigantic cathedral of Leuwen. This is a university town with a well-preserved historic centre. It is very pedestrian friendly and there is much bicycle traffic. I have not experienced that level of participation in bicycle traffic since my travels in Japan. Although one can see many of the students cruising through the cobblestoned streets in the city centre on their ‘fietsen’, there is an even mix of all age groups represented among the bicycle users.
I have seen a mini-van version of the bicycle: Two child seats mounted on the back for the busy parent. It is also interesting to observe, that many of the bicycles here are not $3,000 status symbols or sports machines with all the fancy shocks and frames. They are well equipped for everyday use, splashguards, fenders, built-in locks, and dynamo-generators for the lights.
After a few moments in silence, I will go out and continue my wanderings. I will soak in the history of this place (and its rain) and then go back to the railway station. It is fascinating for me to sit within these century old walls, look at the unique texture of the sand stone masonry; it reminds me that we are no longer able to afford that level of human craftsmanship because our economic priorities have shifted.
Human labour, the foundation of production, has become too expensive in this consumerist society. Instead, we support an artificial and illusory system of money exchange and circulation based on services and wasteful consumption. I am wondering when that bubble is going to burst.
Back on the regional train: The rain has eased a little bit and the sky seems a little brighter this afternoon. I am going to start my walking journey in Sint-Truiden. I randomly picked the spot from a map – it has no other significance for my journey.
I found a beautiful neo-romanesque church (Sint-Maartenkirk) in Sint-Truiden. It was sparsely lit, which added some special effect to this room of harmonic proportions. Most of the steeple houses I have seen so far are too grandiose for my liking. They are built with the intent to represent the wealth and the power of the builders. Massive towers that are simultaneously fortifications for time of unrest, a part of history that seems to have repeated itself frequently in this region of Europe.
Further along the narrow streets, I found the friary of the Franciscans. I visited their exhibition on the life of St. Francis (1181-1226) and their life in the order since the foundation of the friary in 1226. I was drawn to the museum by a curious piece of art in one of these tall red brick walls. It looked like there were two implanted stone cannon balls in that wall; but higher up, there was this shining globe with birds on it. Art in the spirit of St. Francis?
In the museum, I found a piece of exhibition that exemplifies one of the dilemmas I have with the Catholic Church. It amassed treasures over the centuries, paid for by the poor, the suffering, and the hopeful. The Franciscan museum showed a spire built of chalices, candleholders, and reliquaries – the very essence of showing off wealth and power. I would like to know how the friars could justify, even as a historic artifact, such a display when their rule mandates simplicity and their lives are dedicated to follow the life of Jesus in poverty.
The best part of the museum visit for me was the free washroom and the warm and dry space. That way, I could ready myself for the first stretch of praying with my feet. I headed east, left the city walls behind me, and marched away from the town. My destination for the day was a Bed & Breakfast in the small village of Brustem, only a few kilometers away. It was already getting dark, and without a map I had to ask for directions a couple of times. Using a mix of English and German, I was able to communicate with the locals who speak a Flemish dialect.
Now I am here on a working cherry farm. This part of Flanders is an intensive fruit growing area. My hosts live in a historic farmhouse and have about twenty hectares of table cherries. This time of the year they have not much work with their trees. It is too wet to go into the orchards and do pruning work.
It seems like I can’t get away from places with religious significance. The farm that I am staying for tonight is the birthplace of Christina the Astonishing. Christina lived in the 12th century, about 400 years before the current buildings were erected. Her life is an interesting story to read and contemplate about. To listen to her story, check out this song by Nick Cave: