29 November 2005

the bike ride that changed my life again

Funny that my last post was about the fietsknooppuntennetwerk. I am here now to tell the story of why I have not posted for over a week. Dear reader, we will relive a turning point in my life together in near-completeness for the first time, for only now am I gathering the final pieces of what came to pass that beautiful afternoon--the last time I felt truly alive.

I meant to practice the organ in the Onze-Lieve-Vrouw-over-de-Dijle kerk on the afternoon of Friday, November 19, 2005. But the autumn day was unusually glorious, and I said to hell with it, I'm going biking! Determined to find the elusive Knooppunt 93, I set out along the usual paths, and followed routes that could barely be considered bike paths until I came to the Provinciaal Domein Vrijbroek. The park delighted me immensely; at its center lay a large rose garden that is surely gorgeous in summer (although nothing can yet compare to the Berkeley Rose Garden), and next to that stood a gezellig yet affordable cafe to which I was determined to take Tom, even if we had to borrow a housemate's bike. After those discoveries, I rode smugly past a bicycle learning course and grinned as an instructor came out to see me on my kickass bike. In retrospect, an ironic moment.

A pond, alive with waterfowl, sprawled across the farther end of the park. Although I was getting antsy to finish my route before dusk, I couldn't resist circling its perimeter. Halfway around, I braked before a rickety raised wooden path winding off into a birch grove. It reminded me of the dirt trails branching out from main trails that I had always wanted to follow, that promised mystery and magic and adventure, that my parents never let me explore while we were hiking together. Here was my chance, at last, to pursue the magic that had always beckoned to me just around the bend.

I locked my bike at the rack that stood conveniently next to the trailhead and wandered in, determined not to care how long the loop might take me. Golden rays fell across the delicate, twisted white branches, changing in hue every minute as the sun settled towards the horizon. Planks creaked under my feet in the still, cool air, and when occasionally they widened into platforms, I threw out my arms and spun around, watching the leaves turn above me. When the trail finally returned me to its beginning, I stumbled out as if from a dream and looked back, trying to engrave the vision and the magic of it in my memory.

The sun was threateningly low and I had 15 km to cover. I had no desire to backtrack; if going just a few blocks further in one direction that I had gone before had brought me these breathtaking new sights, how could I give up what lay ahead? So I sped straight out of the park, down a residential street, around a curious school with Mechelen: Stad in Vrouwenhanden flags fluttering before it, and back onto the street.

My memory begins to fail me now. Did I end up biking behind a white freight truck because it passed me, cutting me off and making me think, "Shit, I need to watch my back, there are crazy drivers in Belgium after all," or did I yield to it as I was emerging from the parking lot? In either case, we approached the busy intersection of the Stuivenbergbaan with the Uilmolenweg thus in line.

Rush-hour traffic was thick and heavy, and with no traffic light, I could hardly imagine how I would get across the six- or eight-lane thoroughfare. As dismay began to set in, I watched astonished as the truck plunged directly into the intersection, slowing oncoming cars with its brute mass. As the roaring intersection came to a halt, I saw my chance to race across. Taking the striped crosswalk, I pedaled hard to follow in the truck's protective shadow.

But as we crossed the traffic island, I saw headlights rushing forward. One car was not slowing down. Can't the driver see that s/he's headed straight for a collision with a giant vehicle? Panicking, I debated between accelerating and braking, desperate to get the hell out of the way. I do not remember my decision. The last persistent memory I have is of those headlights zooming along an intersecting line with my path.

According to the driver, I was pedaling for my life. According to the police, I was thrown off my bike on impact. My body shattered the windshield of thte car and then slid to the ground. It was there that I awoke. My right leg was twisted painfully inwards, and somehow it seemed wrong that it rested entirely flat against the pavement. I told myself that it was mildly injured from the fall off my bike. But why was my beautiful bike, mein armes kleines fahrrad, lying unprotected against traffic several meters away? It seemed so far... maybe even two lanes.

As deep pain seared across the reality that I was reentering, I knew my leg was broken.

I saw the world moving above me against a grey-white sky as if through a fishbowl lens. Two frantic women, one of whom reminded me of Anna Maria, were rushing about and chattering in a language I could not recognize, and a random elderly man was standing nearby, perhaps with others. Perhaps cars were stopped around us, I couldn't tell. We were all about to be run over; I was convinced of that, but too groggy to warn the frantic fools about me. Someone assured me that s/he had called the ambulance, that it was coming soon. At the time, I did not question how they knew to speak to me in English. I began to fear the eternity of pain that would pass before the ambulance arrived. But it came only a few moments after those soothing words dissolved into the bleary air.

As the paramedics lifted me on a tarp, pain shot through my leg. I grabbed one of them by the collar, shouting, but my words were about the same obsession to which I cling whenever disaster threatens to separate me from it. "I'm a carillonneur! My leg can't be broken! It isn't broken, is it? You have to fix it. I can't have a broken leg. I play the carillon!"

Pieter, the last person I spoke to in ER before they wheeled me to my room, told me I was screaming the same thing all the way to the hospital. I also kept asking the same questions due to my concussion. Most likely, "What is your name?" because I wanted to recognize the individuals caring for me in that dark hour, and "Is my leg broken?" But I don't remember anything of the drive beyond the first few seconds. I don't remember arriving at the hospital and hardly remember how they initially treated me. They cut through the right leg of my grey-and-orange American Eagle workout pants and cleaned the wounds. As I came slowly to a more rational consciousness, I was lying in a dimly lit beige room being X-rayed by a man who struggled to turn me carefully; every time he moved me, I had to cry out for the pain in my leg. I lay huddled and alone on that vast table, the only other human in the dark, sterile room far away at some mechanical control panel, forever. And then eternity ended, and he wheeled me back into the ER.

A paramedic was gathering my belongings into a white trash bag. "Where am I?" I asked. "You're in St.-Maarten's Ziekenhuis in Mechelen." Flashback of Tom and me walking past the building several times, debating the meaning of ziekenhuis. "Do you want any of these things now?" I asked gratefully for my cell phone, and clasping it, began to feel reality seep from its cool, sleek shell into my blood-bruised hands.

"If you ever need a shoulder to cry on, you know who to call." I could still hear Geert speaking those words. I needed much, much more than a shoulder to cry on now. I dialed his cell phone--no reply. Panicking, I tried his home phone and trembled as it rang, terrified that only an answering machine would pick up the other end. Finally, his wife answered. Struggling to keep my voice from breaking, I tried to explain my situation. Unable to make out my tear-blurred words, she found him for me. "I don't know if I can come. I need to be here," his disoriented voice was saying. "Please," I pleaded, "I need somebody..." My voice was falling apart.

He called back soon after to say he would be with me in half an hour.

It sounded like an eternity, but it passed mercifully and quickly as I questioned Pieter on my conduct in the ambulance and tried to thank him for his help. He brushed off my gratitude: "It's a job." When a crowd of men seemed to have gathered in my room at once, Geert appeared at the door with baby Rosalie, unable to edge in. I reached out for him weakly. He made it to my bedside at last and set Rosalie down on the opposite bed.

"I think I'm so much smarter and more mature than most 22-year-olds," I gasped bitterly, too exhausted to be abashed that my bloody, bruised leg and ripped pants lay in clear view. "But in one way, I'm exactly the same as the rest. I thought my body was invincible to injury. Geert... I thought it was invincible..."

I did not bother with "Look at me now."

The police came to collect data, but there was little to be had from me in my state. Geert asked them about the condition of my bike for me. The silent look of dismay they gave him broke my heart. The front of the car had also been totaled.

Dr. Vandenberk came in, jaunty, dark-haired, and taller than the others. He told Geert that he would have to leave for the moment. Someone had finally come to anchor me in reality and familiarity. How could he tear that from me so soon? What sort of procedure was so terrible that others could not watch?

"No!" I cried hopelessly. "I want him to stay." But in the Belgian way, they let him stay. I wondered about Rosalie, but could not think of where she could go without her father, so I decided to keep the both of them.

It became clear why the doctor had asked him to leave as he injected my leg with multiple painkillers and positioned a narrow, gun-like drill above the right side of my knee. I gasped and turned away, clamping my eyes shut. "Don't look," Geert said, clasping my hand.

For the next moments, all I knew was immense pain as the doctor drilled the metal rod through my leg and out the left side of it and with a paramedic, pulled both ends until the two segments of my femur were no longer rubbing against each other (the source of immense pain every time my leg was moved), an intense foggy awareness of the interior contents of my right thigh shifting, and Geert's hand as I squeezed it so tightly I feared I might hurt him. My face went through contortions it had never been asked to perform, and my voice modulated through the space between screaming and roaring. Finally the doctor attached the two projecting ends of the rod to a metal stand. "You were so brave," Geert would tell me afterwards disbelievingly. "Only one tear... you shed only one tear."

It was done, and I was to spend the night awaiting my surgery.

But Geert was stumbling out of the room, stammering, "I think I need to get some water." I watched in confusion as he left, waving off a paramedic who tried to explain that certain nerves around my bone could not have been anesthetized. Rosalie was beginning to whine. "Shhhhh," I whispered, waving weakly at her, and a paramedic gave her his finger to clutch with her tiny hand. But she was upset without her father, and having no idea where he'd gone, they summoned a puzzled nurse to take her in search of him.

When father and child returned, Geert explained that he had almost passed out watching the operation. "The world went almost as black as your beautiful black hair," he jested. "I have to go; Rosalie needs her milk, she's sick. But I feel terrible leaving you here alone." I shook my head, laughing. "It's okay, the worst is over. Thank you." I gave him a sincere smile, following my instinct to take care of those who take care of me. "I was an only child. I never needed company, except in the worst of times. I'll be okay."

But I did not remain alone. Marie-Claude came from the Belgian American Educational Foundation office, although initially I couldn't recognize her as I was still reeling from the concussion. My landlords rushed in soon after, and the first thing Alice cried upon seeing me was that I had nothing to fear; they knew I was only a student alone in a strange country, and they would put me on their own health insurance. Marie-Claude had brought my BAEF insurance information, and we reassured them that I would be taken care of. But the kindness of my landlords touched me deeply, and would continue to do so throughout my hospital stay. Alice told me of being run over at my age by a drunk motorcyclist while crossing the street arm in arm with her friends. After slumbering in a coma for nine days, she had awoken and begun the long recovery process. I realized that my accident wasn't half bad in comparison. "Keep smiling," Marie-Claude told me as they left. She was going to leave my boxes in the house--including the one that contained my helmet.

A new face arrived to wheel me to my room, apologizing for hallways we passed through that were under renovation; so typically Belgian to not bother with a protected or alternative route. The elevator doors malfunctioned, but somehow he managed to get me out.

"New colors!" I exclaimed as he wheeled me into a brightly lit hallway split into segments of green, yellow, salmon, and orange. "Why yes... I think the architect had interests in a paint company," he chuckled.

I had known such horror that day that sleeping with my leg skewered on what Dr. Vandenberk had jokingly called a "medieval torture device" was a welcome relief.

17 November 2005


The Antwerp bike routes cover over 500 km. One near Turnhout is advertised enthusiastically as "a green circuit along four prisons." Right up my alley.

16 November 2005

they're on to us, andre!

It was always a secret fantasy of mine to snatch someone else's papers during an exam and run out screaming, "Andre, Andre, I've got the secret papers!" That said and not done, I can't believe I just received a recruitment message from the FBI on MySpace.com. I've got a sharp eye for fraudulent profiles and sites, and this profile screams "I am a professional trying desperately to look respectable on an amazingly sketchy social networking site." Perhaps the FBI is really following up on its self-stated goal #10 to "upgrade technology to successfully perform the FBI's mission." But why would they be recruiting Cal students? Surely 90% of other top campuses would be less actively, vehemently, driven-from-the-depths-of-its-soul opposed to the current political and law enforcement regime than Cal. The American government never ceases to inspire wonder in me.

Still embrassed to be American in Europe,
Special Agent 103309

12 November 2005

exotic america

It seemed absurd to me when Euge once commented earnestly during our trip to California that "America is so exotic." There seemed nothing more pedestrian to me, nothing more appropriate to measure all else by, than America. This came not from closed-mindedness so much as my perspective as an American. My entire life has been a constant process of plucking myself out of the familiar and 'normal' and diving into environments that would challenge me to understand them and incorporate myself into them and them into me. Swapping schools and neighborhoods around San Fran and cutting ties with each, discovering the concept of race in Jackson Hole, WY, racing 3,000 miles away to the East Coast, discovering a different world and my own heart just across the bay in Berkeley, and then fleeing another 3,000 miles to a tiny country to which few Americans ever think to move and which speaks the 48th most 'common' language in the world (can you even name 47 langauges?), ony to find myself there too... myself whole, a condition on which I had almost given up hope. Perhaps it was leaving North America, perhaps it was moving to Belgium, perhaps it was finding myself, perhaps it was finding Europeans and their perspectives... but something about coming here finally showed me that America is as exotic a study as a traveller could ever hope to discover.

And now I have this little addiction to browsing the used bookstore De Slegte in Antwerpen and picking up dirt-cheap American photography books I could only dream of affording in the US: Richard Misrach's gorgeous and now nostalgic Golden Gate (which is destined eventually for the library of another Berkeley lover), David Plowden's Imprints (a Yalie, no less... my awe of Yale and its graduates just keeps growing), and today a book I had never heard of before, Kate Schermerhorn's America's Idea of a Good Time.

Not surprisingly, her photos in a way show the sort of America we think of when we think of stereotypical images of America... they do not show the America in which I grew up, neighborhoods where shop owners had their brains blown out, communities that only came together to see the implosion of infamous highrise projects, and Ivy League towers beyond whose protective and exclusive bounds your roommate might have bottles broken over his head on his way home. But also an America of art museums and concert halls, splendid ethnic cuisine, Claes Oldenburg sculptures, icy national parks, desert national parks, empty trains, dark library stacks, fiesty biking communities, modernist wreckages, artists' studios in former toy factories, candlelit rituals, and towers and more towers and bells and the wind. None of these parts of America bear any relation to each other, not even in my arbitrary rhetorical division and juxtaposition of them, except that they avoid coming close to the gaudy, ironic, beautiful, bizarre, sad, and hilarious scenes that Schermerhorn protrays with some technique and lots of keen eye. Elements of her captured scenes most distant from my own life pop out at me from each page in their startling familiarity. So even to me, the scenes in her book are also America... and they are an America so exotic and alluring and filled with a way of life I no longer know that I cannot seem to stop finding myself in them.

11 November 2005


It's clear that I was fated to have the phone number 624-5*0*0*7* at 65 Edgewood last year. Thanks to Tom for luring me into spending a couple of minutes answering questions that mostly had nothing to do with me. Admittedly, I have a penchant for saving beautiful women, but I would have preferred to kick Mr.-Smith ass as Neo.

You scored as James Bond, Agent 007.
James Bond is MI6's best agent, a suave, sophisticated super-spy with charm, cunning, and a license to kill. He doesn't care about rules or regulations and is somewhat amoral. He does care about saving humanity though, as well as the beautiful women who fill his world. Bond has expensive tastes, a wide knowledge of many subjects, and is usually armed with a clever gadget and an appropriate one-liner.

James Bond, Agent 007


Batman, the Dark Knight


Captain Jack Sparrow


Lara Croft


Neo, the "One"


Indiana Jones


El Zorro


The Terminator


William Wallace




The Amazing Spider-Man


10 November 2005

the bells' angels

Ultra-modern and abstract renovations to the shared courtyard of the Museum Mechelen and Royal Carillon School are almost complete. Blue nighttime lighting has been added to the arcade adjoining the courtyard and mini-carillon tower.

Me: "What do you think of the new blue lighting?"
Geert: "It's great. All it needs is a whore."

Other news of interest: Luc and Twan form the badass duo "The Bell's Angels."

Belgian sex life (only just) above average.

But seriously...the sobering answer to the importance of the poppy, although sadly I still haven't found any seeds to grow.

Also soberingly, cars were torched in several cities including one on the Graaf Van Egmontstraat last night. Really makes you wonder about those instances of "VENDETTA" graffitied across a couple of boarded-up walls.

08 November 2005


Côte d'Or milk chocolate spread on fresh tigrebrood (which has irregular bands of sugar coating on top)... sooooo good it bowled me over. All for just a couple of euros, and beat the neuhaus fondant pure chocolate spread by a kilometer. Ohhhhhh man.

06 November 2005


It was one of those days. You know, those days when everything goes wrong. I would have been better off staying in bed, where I belonged, since I've been sick. And no shoulder to cry on. Although if I had a shoulder, I'd probably punch it instead... grrrrrr!!!

My landlord's kooky and perfectly adorable. Her son apparently went to live with some 15-year-old Goth girlfriend and her family when he was 18, borrowed money from the YMCA, and expected his parents to foot the bill. The judge said no way jose. He's now working at Del Haize. I need to figure out where it is and do a little shopping.

04 November 2005

public art

After picking up the package with my organ shoes (finally!!) from the BAEF office, I wandered to the European Parliament. The first building I encountered was an old one in the midst of a half-flooded construction site; much like the ISM's former dining hall building, it was magnificent and decaying, its elaborately carved ceiling exposed to the elements and covered with white deposits. Around it, a massive complex of sleek, cold, well-maintained modernity towered.

Behind the EU complex, I found a park in which stood a curious four-foot-wide slab of graffiti-covered concrete, standing perhaps eleven feet tall. I stopped to wonder at what it was doing amidst the angles and curves of a monument of glass... and realized it must be a section of the Berlin Wall. Sure enough, it was from the Potsdamer Platz. Its 1989 dismantlement allowed the formation of ... on May 1, 2004--what precisely, I couldn't decipher from the Dutch, French, and German captions. I remember watching the news as the wall came down, not realizing its significance as an uncomprehending six-year-old, but knowing that something bad was being joyfully destroyed. To see a piece of the wall for the first time, only five days before the sixteenth anniversary of its dismantlement, was moving, for I had enough of a sense of what it stood for to be stunned by it.

Closeups of graffiti on the Berlin Wall.

Considering how many stares I get in Mechelen for dressing a little offbeat, I wonder how the little town of Putte reacts to the annual Body Art Festival. I mean, maybe Putte is much more open-minded than Mechelen, if anybody lives there at all.

In other news, Dendermonde calls itself De Ros Beiaardsted. Only in Belgium. =)

02 November 2005

hanging the bell

Interesting bell expression from personals ad: "Hallo, ik ben dat hier eens aan het proberen, ben niet van plan om alles hier aan de klok te hangen, maar kan altijd wel iets moois van komen"


Who would have imagined that after a long period of indifference, I'd be getting so into blogging that I now have my third blog at LiveJournal? I'm also real down wit da RSS. Maybe it's a Mac thing.

01 November 2005

all saints

I stayed up nearly all night pessimistically working my ass off only to discover when I finally [mostly] finished this afternoon that the post office had been closed for the past two days for All Saints' Day. My dear België, a true kenner of leisure time to the dismay of stomme Amerikanen like me, considers it a national holiday. Fortunately, most of the Soros can be submitted online, but I don't know what they'll make of my CD postmarked November 2. To add injury to insult, my bike fell on my foot as I tried to step away from it to read the hastily printed sign on the door of De Post.

Too tired to feel remorse, I biked to Carrefour and Del Haize to see if I could erase my woes by shopping, but Carrefour was lifeless save kids running wheezy model cars around the empty lot, and Del Haize was nowhere to be found. Magnetized to the canals as usual, I biked north on the east side of the Dijle, a less frequent route for me. Despite or because of the holiday, I encountered only one human being along the way: a man trying to gather up his spilled belongings--way too many to have possibly fit on that bike--perhaps all his worldly possessions. The Dijle looked different, and the wind of the unusually cold but sunny afternoon felt smoother and cleaner than I have almost ever known it. As I reached my favorite underpass, I realized that my beloved "hanging gardens" were nearly submerged in water. The Dijle had risen and swelled over 1/3 of its normal width! I barely noticed any rain in the past 24 hours, but perhaps it fell elsewhere or while I was oblivious at my computer. The sight was stunning, beautiful, exhilarating, and surreal, especially after an exhausting night. Without my iPod, the silence was gorgeous as well.

Too weary to continue, I decided to cross the canal via the highway overpass, half expecting to be run over in the process. Instead, I discovered a spacious bike lane, and not a single car or bike interrupted my tranquility.

"Belgium, you spoil me!" I accused the wind, and as I coasted down the bicycle off-ramp, "What did I do to deserve you, Mechelen?" As I passed the hanging gardens again, birds alighted on each post and twittered nonsense replies.

For dinner, I cooked Signaporean noodles from my new Dutch Chinese cookbook, and severely regret only cooking one serving.