June 21, 2012:
I estimate a 50 percent chance that the agency will ever produce a plane ticket, and it would likely be a long time coming even if it did happen. The Brussels scene has got to go, can’t stand another day of it, slugs in the woods, endless library time, eating only short and flat foods that fit in my pockets easily. Time to hit the road again, and if that ticket does come, then I’ll try my best to get back to Brussels in time. I hate to risk missing a flight someone else has paid for, but this agency’s right hand never seems to know what the left hand is doing, the bureaucracy of a large organization in action. Such long-term uncertainty just doesn’t work for a “foreigner” living on the streets of Brussels.
Why make the move today? Because for the first time in recent memory the forecast shows full sunlight for many days to come. Individual sunny days seem to always disappear from the forecast, but multiple days should be safe. Two options; Paris or the ocean…..I’m still considering them while packing up camp this morning. The backpack smells terribly of mold. This forest floor hasn’t been dry for over a week. Ants found their way to a brick of cheese that was zipped up in the backpack overnight. I blow a dozen of them off and have the remaining cheese for breakfast.
After a straight month of city life I can’t go directly to an even bigger city……Brussels is a village compared to the megametropolis of Paris. The ocean is directly at the end of the E40 freeway, directly linking Brussels to Oostende 100km away.
This journey starts with a walk through the massive forest park that been home for too long. The lake roads on the northern end of the park are closed every weekend, making for a wide open peaceful scene on this brightening Saturday morning. Not many many cities can be found such a vast “wilderness” so close to the center. Big flocks of geese glide low to the water, their combined honks loud enough to make everyone stop and stare. A little pedestrian cable ferry takes passengers to an island with a large restaurant and paddle boats.
A big new BMW SUV races around a curve I thought was closed. The driver speeds up, swerving towards me, laying on the horn. I shrug my shoulders while continuing on at the same brisk pace, correctly assuming that he won’t follow through on the threat. The BMW suddenly turns directly in front of me, inches from my toes, blocking the entire oncoming lane of traffic. A power window glides down and I’m suddenly face to face with a remarkably ugly blob. No way, this guy is way too big and old to be picking a fight.
A woman of roughly the same age and appearance screams frantically in the passenger seat, pointing ahead, begging the driver to leave. The blob aims a finger near my face, spewing unknown hate in French, veins bulging, spit flying, huge eyebrow contorted.
Blob responds with a sudden wild swing out the window but the stubby arm can’t reach me. I step back as it throws the door open. The woman is flailing around so much that the whole BMW is wobbling, screaming so that it seems she may have a heart attack at any moment. I wouldn’t be surprised if both of them just keeled over dead this instant.
Blob takes a run at me, or at least the closest thing to a run it can muster. I pull out my camera at the same moment as a jogger yells from across the street, “I’m a witness!”. Blob’s expression suddenly changes, realizing this can’t end well. It stops the charge and returns to the vehicle, beating at the steering wheel, frothing at the mouth as I snap a license plate photo. Blob gets back out, running towards me again.
The jogger repeats across the street, “I’m a witness….” The blob again suddenly stops its charge, “TAKE A PICTURE OF ME! TAKE A PICTURE OF ME!” I walk around the truck, ignoring the blob, returning to the sidewalk. BMW screeches away.
The jogger, Till, has dealt with such Brussels drivers before and so is very serious about his offer to serve as a witness, “It’s always guys like that, in big cars”. He calls the police from my phone and gives them all the information we have, but it’s unlikely the blob will ever hear from police unless a complaint form is filled out.
I hate cities.
A maze of cloverleaf intersections begins the hitchhiking. It’s such a tangle of roads that I consider walking another 5 miles out of the city to a simpler access point, but the backpack is already feeling heavy, got to try here first. A big old blue van quickly stops, packed nearly full with cargo and a 40-something couple. She’s from Canada and he’s Belgian, professional street performers specializing in juggling, life-size puppets and contortion acts. At a younger age they were traveling buskers, but now the shows are done as professional vendors at festivals and circuses. Work comes often in the summer, rarely in the winter, and this is their only job except for raising kids and renovating their own house. A nice life indeed.
They both are experienced hitchhikers, or were until some men in a white van held the driver Barto at knife point in a rural area outside of Paris, trying to extract his bank card PIN number. Another truck luckily happened to be traveling down the country road, giving him the chance to run towards it while the kidnappers were momentarily distracted. This is what the occupants of the white van did for a living until they finally did stab someone who ended up spending three weeks in a hospital. The police apparently got serious about catching them after that, and Barto was able to testify in the case.
My next ride also comes quickly from a rest area gas station near Gent. They’re a group of young people returning from a Catholic summer camp. Before they noticed me, I’d noticed them, looking so happy drinking an entire case of soda and beer in the sunny parking lot. Talking to people and cold drinks, the scene was painfully pleasant.
Two of the girls walk up from behind as I’m displaying an “Oostende” sign to passing traffic. The leader of this curiosity is Stephanie and she’s brought along her friend Delphine. The others in their group remain distracted in the distance. The girls stage a friendly interrogation before inviting me over to join the others. They are all teenagers to early 20-somethings, mostly from farm families that raise cattle. Never would I have guessed them as farmers, and never would they have guessed my age. One says 20, another thinks 22, with the best guess being 25. One of the guys hands me a Coke as one of the girls presents a bag of miniature sweet waffles.
“My granny made them.”
I ride with the two girls and Robin, all college students, studying agriculture, social work and electrical-mechanical engineering. They drive me 15km past their destination, all the way to the coastal city of Oostende, handing me the whole bag of little waffles as we say goodbye.
Immediately I sit down upon a bench and eat every last waffle, nearly a pound of them, causing my stomach to ache the rest of the day. Downtown Oostende is full of luxurious yachts and sailboats. A series of little drawbridges raise and lower as the boats go to and from the sea of this perfect day. Tourists move in huge flocks, all the activity taking place under the intricate double steeples of a big old cathedral.
I walk north along the coast in search of a campsite, an area I’d already mapped out on Google a few days ago just in case I came here. There’s an absurdly crowded tram following the coastline. Not sure exactly where to go, I ride for just a few stops then explore. On the other side of the huge sand dunes are thousands of beachgoers, enjoying one of the few nice days this entire summer has had to offer. A slightly chilly breeze remains, prompting some people to erect elaborate cloth windscreens. Dozens of tiny white beach shacks sit in a perfect line along the dunes, most fully inhabited, colorful towels hung out everywhere to dry. One man encircles his entire cabin in a windscreen, having brought along a large hammer to do so.
There’s too many people here to make a hidden campsite possible, even far back in the dunes is no escape from the occasional random wanderer. I ride the tram a few more stops, again packed like sardines. There the beach is far more reasonable, just occasional joggers and dog walkers. There’s two sets of parallel dunes, with the farther one fenced off. A hole in the fence leads to an overgrown path at the top, about 25 feet above sea level. Barely a soul treads treads here, and a wonderful ocean view.
I don’t want to camp right on top though, just in case somebody walks the path, and the sides of the dune are too steep for sleeping. A collapsed portion of the dune offers the perfect campsite, just below the path and protected out of view from every other angle, facing the sea. The sand is perfectly white and fine, with the thick dune grasses dancing in the wind. I tie the edges of my tarp to blades of grass, then sit the foam pad and sleeping bag atop it. This is where I watch the sun go down, writing what you’ve read here. With the darkness comes stars for the first time in many weeks.