Civilization and Its Discontents: Part One, Discontents

As you get older, things once on your bucket list begin to kick the bucket. No matter how willing the spirit, the flesh balks. In my case we’re not talking about scaling the Seven Summits of diving the Great Barrier Reef. My flesh was never up to daring-do, nor my mind interested.

But these days even a week in modest luxury in France and the Low Countries to eat well and visit museums is as fraught with peril and pain as an attempt by younger, hardier souls to cross the Negev on camelback or to swim the English Channel.

I had hoped to bring back indelible, sustaining memories of culinary and visual art, and I did. But they are interlarded with recollections of too many stairs for the knees, airline seats too cramped for the ailing back and an apparent seasonal allergy to Western Europe that made my nose more of a focus of attention than the masterpieces of the Rijksmuseum.

And for all its sophistication, beauty and charm, Europe has some real deficits when it comes to creature comforts. The Paris Metro is a wonder, but for anyone even mildly hobbled by creaky joints the pleasure of swift, reliable, inexpensive transport is mingled with pain. Seriously impaired people must find the system unusable. Embrace the escalator and elevator. Eiffel did.

And why do Europeans feel there is no need for a top sheet on a bed? The duvet is the work of the devil since it pretty much guarantees that those in search of rest will be alternately too hot and too cold all night long.

In a similar vein, why have the French not discovered the shower curtain? The lack means that just to complete your daily ablutions you either flood the bathroom or are forced to assume poses that would challenge a yogi.

Some of the tribulations of travel are one’s own fault, of course. Due to my parsimony we ran into a spot of bother in Amsterdam. A guidebook warned us to avoid Queen’s Day, a royal birthday celebration akin to our Fourth of July. It is a national day off, given over to street life, alcohol fueled revelry and the like. Therefore visitors will encounter unusually crowded conditions at tourist attractions.

According to the guide, Queen’s Day fell exactly on the day we planned to visit museums in Amsterdam, so we rejiggered our itinerary to arrive earlier and leave a few days before the holiday. Very clever, except the guide was out of date. The Queen is gone, long live the King or whoever’s in charge now. His day just happened to be on exactly the day we’d shifted to, so there were the crowds, boisterously waiting for us.

I’d also like to warn unwary travelers about another lurking pitfall. Not for the first time I made the mistake of renting a car with a GPS, assuming my navigational worries were solved. Au contraire.

In fact, the maps for the infernal machine had apparently not been updated since an earlier century. So I found myself driving along a beautiful highway while the GPS showed me crossing open fields and boggy water while screaming at me to turn around before sinking into the quagmire.

That was mildly amusing. Being routed off the ring roads around Rotterdam and Antwerp and instead told to drive through crowded center city neighborhoods and blighted slums was no joke, costing us time, money and gray hairs. A human with an old fashioned Michelin map would have easily outshone the defective and possibly malign GPS.

Bruges is touted as a perfectly preserved ancient town, and I always wanted to see it. But it is also a rapacious tourist trap where no possible opportunity to fleece the touring sheep is missed. The Memling and Groening museums are nice, modest in scale and wildly overpriced, as is much else.

A church with a single aging work of art feels no compunction about erecting a turnstile and roping in the marks. The canals are clotted with boats up to the gunwales with selfie-snapping tour groups. The streets are chock-a-block with souvenir shops, chocolatiers and other retailers. In short, the place is a Disneyfied version of the past. You have been warned.

Finally, Belgium, sandwiched between the elegant, prosperous and efficient cities of the Netherlands and France, is a mess. It is densely populated as befits the home of Brueghel, master of the crowd scene. It is also the crossroads of continental commerce in part due to the nearby port of Rotterdam, Europe’s busiest. And it is the host to NATO and other major pan-European institutions. For the hapless traveler all of that might as well be translated into: Expect Delays.

Traffic backups around Utrecht, Antwerp and Brussels appear to be the norm and rival circles of hell like Washington, DC. Perhaps the tiny population is unable to afford the infrastructure that the country’s strategic position necessitates. For whatever the reason, traffic regularly grinds to a maddening halt and stays that way, pining you between immense trucks.

Getting into downtown Brussels from the AutoRoute was even more agonizing. The place clearly needs the immediate attention of a Baron Haussmann willing to bulldoze promiscuously in pursuit of greater efficiency.

On a less niggling but far darker note, we were forced to walk a lot further than we’d hope to one destination in Brussels because the preferred subway station was closed. It was the site of the bloody terrorist bombing in March and has not yet reopened.

Of all our stops, Brussels seemed the most wary. Men in camo, toting automatic weapons patrol in front of every official building. The walls are spray painted with hate speech. The blue collar citizenry seems suspicious, inward, unwelcoming and scared. Young Muslim men seem scared too, and sullen. It is not a cheerful place and seems to be struggling economically.

That’s the bad and the ugly. Next time, the good.

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