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‘It’s an invasion’, M. says, with the softness of self-evident truths. ‘The wind blows their whispers from the dunes when I walk the dog at night. I don’t see them, and I am even more afraid. What if they jump out and break into my home when I am asleep?’
‘Did it ever happen?’
‘No. But it could. It has happened somewhere. Oostende, I think. When I see their faces, I am not so afraid’.
Her voice is pleasant; her hands look like two crumpled paper bags at the end of her arms. When I’d asked her about her job, she’d lifted them towards my face with a stoic but self-deprecating sigh she must have perfected over a lifetime spent on Social Security: ‘Disabled.’
‘What do they look like?’
‘You mean dark skin?’
‘Dark skin, dark clothes. Sometimes they even cover their face with a dark scarf.’
‘Did you ever speak to them?’
‘Tell her about the sandwich’, says O., without lifting his gaze from the cards in his hands.
He’s sitting at the table with three other men his age. They looked so engrossed in their game, that I didn’t realize he’d been listening to our conversation. O. has a big grey moustache, which hangs over his mouth like a miniature theatre curtain. His muscular fingers must have gone through all the manual work M. has missed in her lifetime of arthritis, plus his own, plus some.
‘What sandwich?’, I ask.
‘The one they threw away’, O. replies, never once lifting his eyes from the cards.
I look at M., and M. shakes her head. It could be both a ‘yes’ and a ‘no’.
‘There were these two guys near the Palace’, she says. ‘One talked to me in English; he was clearly asking for money. He was in such a bad shape. So dirty. So thin. I felt sorry for him. I just had enough money for the groceries I was going to buy. But I was eating a sandwich – I get these appetites, you know, and I have to eat something immediately or else I feel faint. I gave it to him.’
‘And he threw it away?’
‘Yes, in a garbage bin. Right in front of my eyes. His friend rushed to take it out from the bin and ate it himself. But the other one stormed away, looking very angry. At me.’
‘How did that make you feel?’
‘I thought that was very impolite. I felt disrespected. I mean, I see they need help. When they break open the cabins on the beach, I understand it’s because they have nowhere to sleep. But I am a human being too, you know what I mean?’
‘What do you think could be done, to make the people here feel less disrespected? Less afraid.’
She lifts her bony shoulders, puckers her mouth.
‘I don’t know. Maybe a place where we could meet. Drink a cup of coffee together, have a chat. So we’d see their faces, and they could see ours.’
‘It would never work’, interjects O. from his table. ‘Not with these new people. They are different from the ones before.’ He’s no longer looking at his cards but directly at me. The game has been stopped, and all the players are following the conversation.
‘What do you mean?’, I ask.
‘They used to come from warzones, before. You could see it in their eyes they’d been forced to flee. These new ones, instead, they just look for money.’
‘Don’t we all’, says G., and all faces turn towards him.
G. has been translating his fellow Zeebruggenaars’ Flemish into English and my English back into Flemish without adding any of his thoughts, until now. His round face opens in a grin. ‘I am always looking for money too. If the people in Bruges would give me some more, for example, I’d throw away these wobbly chairs and buy new ones.’
‘The municipality? More money for us? They never will’, says O. ‘But if they ever do, please just buy us more beer with it, will you? The chairs are fine.’
‘You all keep saying that one day you’ll fall and break your pelvis and die!’, says G.
‘We only say that because we are old and bored’, says O. and turns back to his cards.
I stand with G. on the wharf and look out towards the sea, but there’s no horizon. Just a monumental white bulk with countless windows and decks. Even the blue cranes on the docks look like the toys of a toddler compared to this cruise liner. On the other side of the harbour, I can see the reason the migrants flock to Zeebrugge, their secret vessel – or so they hope – into the Promised Land: the ferry to Hull.
‘Do they ever try to sneak onto the cruise liners, too?’
G. shakes his head.
‘They’re not stupid. This passengers’ terminal has more security than the airports in Brussels. Much tighter controls. Cruise companies are very committed to only allow on board people who pay.’
‘What do you think about M.’s idea?’, I ask. ‘A space where migrants and locals could meet, get to know each other. To overcome the mutual fear, the feeling of violation.’
‘It’s a very intelligent idea. Very compassionate. Very right. Human connection trumps hate and mistrust. Very impossible, too.’
The mild breeze feels strangely familiar. Gasoline and salt air, the scent of every port in every latitude. But a mid-October morning on the North Sea shouldn’t be so warm as to feel you’re on the Mediterranean.
G. points towards a big iron cross at the harbour’s entrance. ‘Do you see that? There’s a plaque, with the names of the Zeebruggenaars dead at sea. Every family here has its surname on it more than once, sometimes on the same date. A father and his sons, all gone in one stormy day. This is what this place used to be: a small fishing village. Everybody knew everybody else; everybody worked and died on the same boats. Then came the commercial port and the foreign workers who spoke strange languages. Then came the cruise liners and the tourists who head straight to Bruges and don’t leave behind one single Euro, not even for a coffee, just their pollution. Then came the migrants, who also don’t give a shit about Zeebrugge; they just want to get to the UK. Then came the policemen hunting the migrants with their drones. The people here see all of this world passing by and they feel…’
‘Yes. Invaded and left behind, at the same time. So you see, I have to be very careful. Our community centre was created for the Zeebruggenaars. To help them navigate these weird new times. All these big changes that fly over their heads. Nobody ever listens to them. Nothing ever gets decided here, just where the money is: Bruges and Brussels. I try to help them in having a voice. To feel at home in their hometown. But believe me, it’s not easy. And if they had the impression I took the little money scraped for them and spent it even on a single cup of tea for… for the others… Ah, they wouldn’t like that. Better leave that to the priest and his volunteers.’
I look out from the bedroom’s high windows, down on Marktplein. Tourists, horse carriages, tour-guides leading their herds with raised coloured umbrellas – a mass of frenzied, tiny beings who wash around the square like bacteria in a Petri dish.
My residence is in the back shop of a travel bookstore. I have to cross it when I leave or return to the apartment, so I have the keys. Each time, I walk past shelves and shelves of Lonely Planet, Routard, Frommers’, Fodor, National Geographic guidebooks for every possible destination; past road maps, city maps, trekking maps, biking maps; past dictionaries and phrase books in dozens of languages spoken by human beings of all skin colours; past a children’s section introducing the little ones to the joys of leaving home and exploring the world.
I was born in the country which gave tourism its name. First it was the pilgrims walking to the Holy City to cleanse their sins. Then it was the northern European aesthetes on the Grand Tour, and the name stuck. In the years since I was born, my hometown survived four papal elections witnessed live by millions of faithful, plus 262 more in the two previous millennia. I am accustomed to fighting for my right of way against the human masses vomited into the fragile splendour of Venice by the iron mouths of gigantic cruise ships. I shouldn’t be overwhelmed by the crowds which roam Bruges’ streets, in this climate-change October sun. They should feel no less and no more of an invasion than those I am so used to.
The pub is crowded, the pints get refilled, many eyelids are heavy and red, although it’s not even noon. Either it’s a particularly lazy day at the port, or Zeebrugge’s workforce doesn’t exactly enjoy full employment.
U. works in maritime logistics. His jeans are spattered with coloured stains because, he told me, he’s been painting a chariot for next year’s carnival.
‘They used to try their luck here in the docks, but now it’s much more difficult. What with security cameras, motion detectors… So now many sneak inside the trucks when they are still parked in front of the autoroute cafés. Sometimes even in traffic jams. They cut the tarpaulin, hop inside, and the truckdriver has no clue that he has a passenger.’
‘What happens if they get caught in the UK?’
‘Then the ferry company pays a huge, and I mean huge, fine to the British authorities. It’s gotten to the point that sometimes it’s cheaper for the shipowners to just turn the ferry around and get it back to Zeebrugge, without even docking in Hull. If the stowaways are found in time, I mean.’
‘What if they’re not?’
‘Whole truckloads get to be thrown away. No customer would accept goods on which some guy has slept and pissed and shat for days. Plus, of course, sanitary regulations.’
‘And who pays for the damages?’
‘Insurance companies; at least, they have until now.’
‘Their premiums must be skyrocketing.’
‘You can say that. Soon it will be no longer convenient to ship stuff from here.’
‘What do you think would be a solution, then?’
‘I don’t know. Look. Whatever we do, these people will never, ever quit trying to get to the UK. I heard of a guy who walked all the way to England in the Channel Tunnel. Can you imagine that? TGVs flying a few centimetres past you at 300 kilometres an hour, under the sea, for days? We can’t stop them. Nobody ever will. Sometimes I think we should just let them pass through. They want to leave the continent? Why should we prevent them?’
‘British authorities wouldn’t agree, I suspect.’
‘So what? They want Brexit? Let them handle this too, without European help. It’s their invasion. Not ours.’
The pub’s bell gives out a loud ring. A young man with blood-shot eyes – too able-bodied not to be working at this time of the day – is offering a round to the house. We sit in silence as the waitress refills our glasses.
‘What’s the theme of the carnival chariot you are building, you said?’
‘The Festival of the Dead. My wife and I were in Mexico last Christmas. We loved it. So this year it will be skeletons and sombreros.’
The hairdresser spreads dye on my scalp while I look through the shop window at the endless stream of people outside. Loudspeakers are blaring out pop music in the pretty cobbled side street. I guess the aim is to make shopping feel like starring in a Hollywood romance. These crowds seem more like an invading army, however. Determined foot soldiers marching towards their final victory: being able to say for the rest of their lives, ‘I have been in Bruges’.
Or: ‘in Venice’.
Or: ‘in Rome’.
Most of them have little more than six hours. They have to check back into the floating skyscraper docked in Zeebrugge’s port before the aperitif, offered by the Captain, is served. In the four years since the hairdresser opened this shop, she told me, not a single one of her clients was ever a cruise passenger. ‘They must buy their chocolate, go on their canal boat tour… no time for their hair.’
‘Does it bother you?’, I ask. ‘I mean the crowds, the noise…’
‘I have my business. I don’t mind. Except…’
She’s wrapping my head with tinfoil and it crackles loudly in my ears.
‘Sometimes they come inside, ask “where is the Flea Market?”, “where is Chocostory?” And I tell them. Then they go out and start walking in the wrong direction. Now, that really drives me crazy.’
‘What’s the thing you like best about being on a cruise?’
They are from Vancouver, Canada, and this is their first time in Europe. Her brown hair is so lush it shines in the sun. Both sport smart sunglasses, Chinese features and a holiday smile.
‘Difficult to say. Probably the service. The staff is always friendly, always ready to help. They work very long hours, but they make you feel like a real VIP.’
‘Where are you heading off to now? Bruges?’
‘No, we are more into capitals. That’s why we selected this cruise: London, Paris, Amsterdam and then Hamburg and Berlin! Now we are going to Brussels.’
‘How long can you stay there?’
‘Oh, we have enough time. If we manage to catch the next train, we should have more than four hours there. At least three and a half.’
‘What do you plan on visiting in Brussels?’
‘It’s an old European city, so I guess there are medieval castles.’
‘We like medieval castles’, says the husband, and it’s the first time he speaks.
‘Do you also have time to get around Zeebrugge a little?’
‘Yes. This town. Where we are now.’
‘Oh. I thought this was Bruges.’
The wife takes out a flier from her pocket.
‘That’s what it says on today’s program: Bruges.’
They look puzzled at each other, then at me.
‘Are we in the wrong place?’
‘No, no, you are in the right place. Zeebrugge is technically Bruges. Same municipality.’
‘Oh, good. Thank you. Do you live here?’
‘No, I’m just visiting myself. I am Italian.’
‘You’re Italian! How lucky!’
‘Italy must be our next trip, darling!’
‘Yes! Rome, Florence, Venice!’
The wind has abated, and now the sun’s almost hot. It’s hard to believe that this summer-like weather is ominous for the planet.
I show them where the station is. They say goodbye and start walking off – in the right direction! But the husband stops mid-stride and turns back towards me.
‘If you don’t mind, I’d like to ask your personal advice.’
‘Please. If I can help.’
‘I’ve heard that the only real way to see Venice is from a cruise ship. Nothing compares, so they say. As an Italian, a local… is that what you’d recommend?’
NEWCOMERS OF THE BELGIAN FLORA AND FAUNA
The Atlantic razor clam used to live only in North America, but it was transported to Europe in the ballast water pumped into ships to stabilise them. Organisms living in ballast waters can be released very far from their original habitat, when ballast water is discharged after a long voyage.
The New-Zealand barnacle came to Europe on the hull of allied vessels during the Second World War. It is now the most common barnacle on the Flemish coast.
The Japweed originates from the Indo-Pacific region…
The promenade, where this billboard is, is so far away from the cruise liners that the landscape can reclaim its grand scale: the blue cranes, the sea dyke, the dunes. And the ocean, of course.
This is where they keep watch on the port, studying its comings and goings for days, even weeks. When they feel they’ve understood its weak spots, they make a run in the night towards the parked trucks. If only they could get inside the Palace Hotel and look out from one of its rundown bay windows – what a perfect view they could have! Better still, from one of the tiled cupolas on top of each corner tower.
The Palace is now a crumbling condominium; some of its windows are closed by wooden boards, others have flaky fixtures. Its large suites and elegant salons have been partitioned into cramped apartments, where many foreign dock workers live now with their families. When it was inaugurated, however, it was meant to accommodate the glitzy first-class passengers of the Hamburg–New York cruise liners. The brand new commercial port and the new era of elegant travel would finally take the fishing village of Zeebrugge out of backwater poverty and into the modern times.
‘Let us hope that many Germans will come!’, said the Minister in his inaugural address on that balmy day in July 1914.
The Germans did come eleven days later, and they were many indeed. Only, they weren’t tourists.
‘It took years to convince the bishop to give us the money’, says N., pointing at the white box out in the garden. ‘We could never afford it. But now look at this beauty.’ The portable shower doesn’t look like much from the outside, but inside there’s hot water, soap, shampoo and a scented pile of clean towels. All the amenities you need to rub off weeks, months, years of illegal travel’s dust.
Before they wash, N. leads the young men into the storage room with the charity donations. It’s full of clean and especially warmer clothes – this uncanny summer will not last forever, and the Flanders autumn could show its normal stern face any day. The garments are sorted by colour. The men don’t even look at the lighter shades and pick black coats, black scarves, the darkest jeans. They know that when they’ll make a run for the ferry, their only friend will be the night.
Now, washed and fresh, they are sitting politely around the table inside the parish dining hall, waiting to be served. I wonder if they know that the priest and his volunteers, like N., receive regular death threats by the neo-Nazis because they insist on providing them with daily warm meals.
At least half of these young men entered the continent they’re now so determined to leave through my native country. If Lampedusa is the gateway to Europe, Zeebrugge is its back door.
‘You Italian?’, says one of them, an Egyptian. ‘Italy very good!’
His fellow diners eye him coolly. They don’t seem to be buying his seductive ways; however, they nod at his words.
‘Ciao buongiorno grassie!’, chimes in a scrawny boy. ‘Come stai?’
He must be thirteen, fourteen at most. How on earth did he survive the grim migrant routes all alone, without any protection? And how could someone who is so obviously a minor manage to trek across Europe without being intercepted by a single Social Service worker? Passeurs is the only explanation. Smokkelaars, as they call them here. Goodness knows what they’ve asked him in exchange. But here he is, directly from Sudan to Zeebrugge. The dazzling white of his intelligent eyes is unmarred by whatever he’s seen, and he sips with slow elegance the warm soup.
He’s not the only one who’s eating less heartily then I’d imagine. A couple of them push away from them the bowl just after a spoonful or two. How can they not be hungry?, I wonder. I am reminded of M.’s sandwich thrown into the garbage bin. It must’ve had meat inside, like this soup – not halal! The more observant ones eat just enough to calm the worst pangs of hunger. And indeed, when N. arrives from the kitchen with two packets of cookies, all eight young men grab their share without qualms, hooting with joy, and then they ask for more.
BRUGES – REST OF THE WORLD
It’s midnight inside the travel bookstore.
No customers, no store clerks, no lights. Just the pale azure glow of an inflatable globe-lamp. Its reflection bounces off the plastic world map on the facing wall.
I glance across the darkness towards the shop window. Historical, wealthy, beautiful, chocolate-selling Bruges is finally at rest, too. So no carillons, no ubiquitous canned music, no crowds. Just rare footsteps as clear-cut as precious stones. A couple passes by, and of course they don’t see me.
The Times World Atlas is so big, so heavy. I open it without removing it from its stand.
I look up Mexico, Sudan, Canada, Belgium, UK.
I study the ochre, green and blue pages. I trace lines with my finger in the universal gesture of travellers since the first map was drawn.
In Yucatan, a Flemish couple is visiting Mayan ruins.
In Al Alagaya refugee camp, a teenager says farewell to his mother before heading north.
In Vancouver, a woman books online a cruise ship to Venice for her parents, who live in Beijing.
In Zeebrugge, a black-clad young man hides in the dunes and plots an invasion.