I just came back from a conference in Belgium. The Belgians are famous for their chocolate, cheese, and beer. I had plenty of all three. They also like stilt fighting–yes, stilts–at least in Namur, which has something to do with the mud there. I can’t be sure, though, because I was too busy drinking nine percent Chimay beer as we cruised down the Meuse River to pay attention to the tour guide. He was not on stilts.
Honestly, I’ve never had so much fromage: Kazemat, Gouda, Damme, Limburger, and Passchendaele, which is also the site of the Third Battle of Ypres in 1917. The cheeses ranged from soft to semi-hard, pale white to orange.
Here’s the thing about Belgians, maybe Europeans in general. They are some of the most jittery people you’ll ever meet. Being the target of hundreds of terrorist attacks could account for that, of course, so I don’t blame them. But when I slowly and calmly asked for directions from a woman sitting next to me on a train from Namur to Brussels, she nearly jumped out of her skin. She scared me.
There was a noticeable uneasiness among people, even with all that beer and cheese. It was as if they knew something that a clueless visitor like me could only guess at. Of course, there are plenty of possible explanations: migrants, refugees, the economy, the fact that–at least in Namur–young people are leaving for more urban areas in search of work. The word “uncertainty” comes to mind, but then that’s a useless description that journalists like to use as their mot du jour.
This was different. It was the weariness that comes from a low grade trauma rather than a productive day of work. Certainly, there is the existential angst that comes from the dilution, even loss, of European culture. You can see that loss everywhere, from the presence of African and Middle Eastern immigrants to the enormous church outside my fourth floor, hotel window that sat vacant like an abandoned tanker. The center next to it is now a home for seniors. Youth, I was told, do not go to church.
“Where do they go?” I asked.
The answer came during my travels to Lyon, France in the form of a three-story mall with a cinema and what looked like a Home Depot, which they probably call Dépôt. The French love everything American even while denying it vehemently. Especially youth. You can see more Yankees baseball caps traveling through Belgium and France than you can in the Bronx. I don’t think the adults mind as they grieve over the Europe that once was and await the Europe to come. At least the Yankees are familiar.
Grief is not too strong a word for what is happening, although I do not understand why Europeans wait for the future instead of bringing it about themselves. No doubt, this is the quintessential difference between America and Europe. They have seen it all; we want it all. The truth lies somewhere in between in an Aristotelian mean.
The conversation I had with a young man from Catalonia on the return trip from Lyon to Brussels was telling. We were stuck in a sweltering, second class compartment with a plump, French woman who nibbled a blueberry tart and a heavy girl in “high-rise” shorts and tattoos. The young man was with his father. Both had backpacks the size of river rafts. He majored in Environmental Studies and told me that the unemployment rate for youth in Spain had reached fifty percent.
When I suggested that he move to a place where his prospects were better–Germany, for instance–he shook his head and told me how competitive the market was. When I followed up with Silicon Valley, his eyes twinkled, but then he said his grades weren’t good enough. I thought about pressing him further but decided against it. It seemed his mind was made up.
Hours later, as our train arrived at Brussels Midi station, I turned to him and said, “So, who needs grades, anyway? Just do it!” I do things like that, not leaving well enough alone. It’s one of my gifts.
He looked up and smiled. I wanted to tell him more, but I had to rush to catch the last train to the airport and my last Chimay.
It really was Tuesday.