Finally, a public library where the laptop can both be plugged in and access wifi, but the building is only open for a few limited odd hours just 4 days per week. It’s small but new and the bathroom smells like roses. There’s near serenity until a squad of French-shrieking children begins stampeding through the rooms. Suddenly the chatter switches to a simultaneous chant, over and over again, “WHO LET THE DOGS OUT….WHO….WHO WHO WHO?”. The only employee on duty continues staring at a computer screen as if the disturbance was invisible. So far seems nearly impossible to find large libraries in Europe that accommodate laptop computers. It’s mostly just very small buildings also serving as unattended child care facilities.
A pouring thunderstorm left me arriving at the campsite soaked last night, continuing for at least 8 hours as a steady rain. Not wanting to put wet clothes back on this morning, I instead opt to rewear dirty dry clothes. The overnight water created a slug slumber party under my tarp, with an entire pile of the long slimy creatures appearing on the uneaten stub of a carrot. I reach into my breadsack for the last slice, wiping my arm across one of the slimeballs inside. What a culinary surprise that could have been had the creature made it all the way to the bread and I didn’t notice. There’s a snail shell crushed underneath my sleeping bag and a maze of new slime trails on top of it. There’s a slug inside my sleeping bag! There’s a slug inside my backpack! I envision a children’s book about slugs at a campsite, Dr. Seuss style, with a delicious slug pie at the end.
Thanks to this week’s generous donations I feel comfortable with a little couchsurfing dot com. Many times over the past weeks have I considered using that website, but didn’t want to show up on strangers’ doorsteps without the ability to at least feed myself.
A young Brussels filmmaker named Jozef responds almost immediately to a request, whom I had chosen because of his profile statement, “I want to walk around the world again”. We meet outside a big hip corner cafe at Flagey Place, an open plaza popular with university students and the surrounding upscale neighborhoods. This is the first time Jozef has ever used Couchsurfing, and the first time I’ve used it in years. We get to know each other with cold beers on a bench. He supports himself by editing commercials while spending the majority of his time completing a six-year documentary project on the history of Belgian music.
His big project is almost ready to be handed over to a friend who handles the marketing side, presenting the film to festivals and all the other right places. After that Jozef wants to get back on his feet, literally, walking long distances and finding video projects that interest him along the way. He’s already done the El Camino Santiago trail in Spain 3 times on different routes, finding in those journeys an inner tranquility that he longs to reproduce.
We walk two blocks to a historic apartment building where Jozef is renting a top-floor apartment from a bio-engineer friend who is working long-term in France. The friend has the rooms heavily populated with a wide variety of plants. Most of the entire rooftop patio is full of potted oddities with a respectable view. Vines grow across the living room ceiling.“Be careful, they are carnivores”, Josef jokes of the fly traps and other many insect-eaters hungrily dripping inside an aquarium. A humidifier constantly pumps heavy steam into the box, creating a very creepy little world.
We walk together to the aikido class Jozef has been attending for years inside a former ice warehouse that’s now populated with various bars and studios. The businesses are connected to the central floorspace, creating a sort of very unique mall. Just next to one of the big original freezer doors is the aikido den, styled and furnished in classic Japanese style.
The teacher and two students have already begun in an adjacent room with a foam matted floor. The class occasionally bows to a small traditional shrine behind the teacher, all wearing traditional attire. Josef hurries into another room to dress. “Just follow me and follow my lead”, he says upon return.
Shoes are left at the edge of the matted floor. My huge dirty boots with their detached souls stand in stark contrast to little cotton houseshoes. My clothes are dirty and smelly, a polar opposite to the sharp clean white uniforms. The teacher looks up from one of his moves and points to my feet then his. Everybody else is barefoot. I put my filthy socks into the pathetic boots.
The class begins similar to yoga except for a series of self-thumping exercises in which the back of the fists are used to rapidly beat yourself from head to toe, getting the circulation flowing. With no warning the class occasionally jumps and shouts. The teacher approaches twice to correct my moves. He finds a 20-cent coin on the mat and holds it up, which I’m too embarrassed to claim.
The teacher next demonstrates a series of self-defense moves, each time picking one or more of the students to assist. The class bows in unison after each demonstration, then individual students all choose a partner and bow to them. Trying in vein to repeat the teachers moves brings to mind the infamous video of marching soldiers who have been dosed with acid in a secret US government experiment. It looks so easy but I find myself a bumbling retard when attempting to repeat. Every time.
Jozef and one of the other 3 students are eventually able to help me get the moves at least partially right when we partner up. The third student appears high school age and just about as lost as I am. We end up mostly staring at each other when paired up, confused, expecting the other to do it right.
The exercises progress to more complicated scenarios involving fake knives and swords. Students bow to the shrine each time they take or replace the wooden swords from a rack on the wall. With or without a weapon, the goal is always to use your opponent’s forward energy against them, and to always protect your back. The final exercise involves throwing a forward opponent into a rear opponent sword-first, having somebody else do your dirty work “accidentally”.
The whole class except for the younger kid sits at a bar in the main room long after the lesson is over. The teacher’s Italian girlfriend arrives, an EU lawyer-lobbyist. He’s from Madagascar and the other student is from Spain, a hard-working married man. Signs above the bar list various prices for sodas and beers. It’s self service with the money going into a heavy little unlocked steel box. Each person opens the box to make change for themselves. The teacher offers to buy me a traditional Belgian beer that’s 9.5% alcohol and absolutely delicious.
The house master is an old white-bearded man who just left to visit Japan. He has schools like this all over the world and travels between them, keeping a residence in a town near Brussels. “He’ll never give a straight answer to anything”, the others joke, reminding me of Mr. Miyagi from the movie Karate Kid.
“I ask him about the past and he always says the same thing, ‘I just wanted to travel and see the world’”.
“Some new guy walked in the door one day and asked him how long it would take to get a black belt, so he just handed the guy a black belt and said ‘there you go’”.