10th December 2018, Saturday
I had been reading about the Illuminati and the Priory of Sion off late, which ensured my first instincts were way off the mark when Klaas pulled out a robe from his backpack and exclaimed :
“I am just returning from our student society’s meeting in college. Actually, there were a couple of new members that had to be initiated today, so I had to attend the ceremony wearing our traditional attire. Did I tell you about the elaborate rituals and the oath that we make each new member take in this ceremony? Wait, let me get my book….you’re gonna like what it says!!”
As a matter of fact, I did enjoy it!! Apparently, ancient student societies are still a part of traditional European college culture and TSG ‘t Zal wel gaan , of whom my host Klaas was a part of, is based out of Ghent Univerity and dates back to 19th century!! The next couple of hours just breezed past us, as he began explaining about various beliefs each of these societies stay true to and uphold, and how much fun the occasional meetups between his student society and those based in Austria or Netherlands are. What I used to consider as a part of history was breathing under the patronage of these inquisitive European students all these years.
This was first of many cultural eye-openers for me in Ghent – and the day had only just begun!!
“What matters most is not ‘what’ you are, but ‘who’ you are.”
For a young man of his age, he knew a lot about history, culture, architecture and classical music. Apparently, it was due to his deep-rooted affinity to Flanders culture and the fact that he was raised in a traditional Flanders household which exposed Klaas to the rich history of this region.
“Honestly, I don’t even know who we really are. We have a national team representing the nation in international events – but ask any local and he’ll identify himself with the region first and the country after!! I am a proud Flemish, for example. This is my identity. I don’t really know what exactly does the term ‘Belgian’ represent? Apart from the people living inside some man-made borders to the north of Europe, I’ll say it represents nothing.”
I had taken my first bite of Mastel that just made it out of the microwave before his comments took me back. As strange as it may sound, such is the complex history of this country that the conventional sense of national identity probably does not reverberate with many locals here. The country is broadly divided into Dutch and French-speaking provinces, with the language divide apparently running deep in the society. “Everything was dominated by the Dutch language when I was growing up in Flanders – school curriculum, books in the library, language for public office communications; you name it and we had a language divide across it”, Klaas continued as he took a beer out and crashed onto the couch opposite to mine. “If you travel down south, it’s all French. Our history is very complicated and totally dominated by these big medieval powerhouses. Our politics is extremely polarised along the language lines, as a result. Everybody wants the country to be separated into French and Dutch-speaking parts – but nobody is willing to pay for it. You can see we, the Flanders people, are wealthier than Wallonia; so we don’t mind a separate state but they do!!”
I took a sip off my beer and turned my glance to the street outside – my bus ticket clearly stated I was in Belgium but there were surely some complicated undertones dominating the local discourse here.
Klaas had an impressive air of knowledge and pride about him. He was as proud as any local of Flanders you’ll ever come across. As for me, traveling is not all about having a great time, partying and landscapes; I do enjoy personal anecdotes, opinions, and insight from locals on local matters as I really like understanding the complex socio-political structures around the world!! More than Ghent, I would make a case for Brussels presenting a more comprehensive melting pot of new social ideologies trying to dilute these divisive opinions. But here we were, walking across the old town streets in the evening with Klaas as he took me on a tour across his lovely hometown.
“That, right there, is the new University Hospital building. It has really cool facilities for medical studies, they say. I would never know as I really do not understand science and stuff”, he chuckled as we went past an impressive modern architecture dominating the length of the street. “This entire city is our campus of sorts – we have separate faculties for architecture, textiles, technology and other specializations spread across the city. It’s a lot of fun, cycling down these city streets to ride from one faculty building to another!!, he continued. Ghent University is, indeed, one of the top 100 universities around the world and some of the most well-preserved medieval buildings acting as learning centers for students from across the globe, it really must be an experience studying in one. Add to that the Book Tower, an impressive 24-storeyed library which is home to around 3 million books, and you have some of the best blends of historic and contemporary architecture!!
Our long walk meandered through various interesting parts of the town, a route which Klaas had probably planned beforehand – after all, he was looking for every opportunity to show people his hometown. It started with a walk along the boundaries of the Botanical garden, with the impressive architecture of the Modern Art Museum standing proud in all its glory. From there we walked past the Poortgebouw Citadel – or what’s left of it. Only the entry gate of what was once the fortress of Ghent remains now, but when you put the current city’s dimensions into perspective it is impressive to realize the fortress walls extended so far out from the center!! We made our way to the massive plaza of St. Pieterplein, which is the site for some of the most amazing and vibrant festivals and events in the city. I, unfortunately, had ditched my camera back at his apartment as we had plans to sample Belgian beers later in the evening – boy, how I missed it!!
By the time we made it past all the different buildings of Ghent Univerity, in each of which Klaas had some memories and experiences associated with, and ended the tour of the breathtaking 18th-century townhouse which had hosted King Louis XVIII while he was on the run from Napoleon, it was already getting dark and we were really beginning to get hungry. So, it was time to follow Klaas as he led me to his favorite burger shop – but we were there for something entirely different. Authentic Belgian fries with the Flemish Sause Andalouse was what we were after, and we found one with huge portions at a small restaurant close to Gravensteen castle.
“Do you know that this castle stood the test of times for all these years – when in 1949 it was finally seized by the most unexpected of raiders in 1949?”, Klass suddenly came to life at the sight of the imposing structure. “In 1949, a group of students, as part of a prank, stormed into the castle and lowered the portcullis. Their reasons for doing so? To protest against a new tax imposed on beer that year, which would have made it expensive by a couple of cents!! It was a night long siege, with the students throwing fruits at the policemen who tried to enter the castle. As people recount that incident now, I still find it pretty funny….don’t you?”.
I could find the fun element there but of all people in the world, I could actually believe Belgians taking a stance against any unfavorable terms imposed on their beloved beverage!! Klaas would not stop recounting stories about many such incidents from decades ago while I could barely take my hands off of the delectable fries and beef sauce to go with it – how did I never get to try it anywhere before? By the time we came out of the restaurant, it was already getting dark and the spectacle in front of my eyes was slowly coming to life – Ghent’s award-winning light show!!
Devised in 1998, the masterplan for evening lights paints the entire cityscape in spectacular colors, reimagining the beauty of the beautiful churches and canals at night. Besides the aesthetics aspect of this, it is a prime example of how environment-conscious decisions can be beautiful as well, as the plan is meticulously designed to reduce energy consumption on street lights while accentuating the grandeur of city architecture. Unfortunately, Ghent Light Festival did not coincide during my visit, and I finally repented leaving my camera back at home!! However, there was not time to cry over the lost opportunity, as another memorable experience was just around the corner!!
Finally, it was time for beer sampling and boy, wasn’t I really looking forward to that or what!! Basking under the beautifully lit city, we gingerly made our way through the Ghent Harbour area and walked past St. Nicolas’ Church when we were stopped in our strides by the sight of a lot of locals gathering at Ghent Pavilion. Curiosity may not have killed the cat but it sure prompted us to kill some of our time, so we headed toward the impressive architectural marvel as the Pavilion building’s open and airy architecture is. Before we could understand what exactly the occasion was, judging by the food trucks and beer counters lined up around the pavilion, few men in uniforms gathered at a corner, fully equipped with their brass instruments, and initiated the ceremony – which it apparently was.
“He’s thanking us all for gathering here in commemoration of World War 2’s anniversary function”, Klaas translated the proceedings to me. “The army band will be playing some local tunes to celebrate the end of the war and greet all the veterans who have gathered here”, he continued. Right on cue, the deep sound of the brass bass filled the air as the bagpipes and trumpets slowly joined in. Before I could fathom what exactly made everybody suddenly gather in a huddle around me, I hear a loud heavy voice singing the following by my side…
Zij zullen hem niet temmen, de fiere Vlaamse Leeuw,
Al dreigen zij zijn vrijheid met kluisters en geschreeuw.
Zij zullen hem niet temmen, zolang een Vlaming leeft,
Zolang de Leeuw kan klauwen, zolang hij tanden heeft.
I quietly stepped aside as passions took over Klaas and more passion started flowing through his song. Old ladies and gentlemen started taking out their mobile phones and recording him from all angles, while some at the front of the crowd slowly joined him in the chorus. That was when I realized what I was witnessing – the spirit of Flanders flowing through the veins of everyone around me as they joined to sing the anthem of Flanders in unison!! Tears flowed from the eyes of a few elderly, while emotions got the better of few others. Time seemed to have flown away as passions ran deep and the entire city sang through the better part of what was an hour’s function. As the trailing note off the bagpiper marked the end of the ceremony, I found Klaas back to our realm and standing by me.
“I can’t help it….as soon as the anthem starts something possesses me and I cannot stop singing it. I told you, we locals love our Flanders a lot!!”, Klass buttoned up his jacket as the air started to get chilly. “Do you want to have something here or should we leave?”
Before I could answer, an elderly couple walked past the queue of people, who had lined up to get their pint of beer from the stall near us, and stopped beside us. A short smile between us led to a couple of minutes’ conversation in Dutch with Klaas, after which he turned to me and asked – with a smile on his face:
“Would you like to have a free beer? “
A few minutes later we both had joined the queue, with complimentary beer coupons in our hands to make the evening even more interesting than what it had already been. The old lady was a member of the local newspaper who wanted to write an article on how the younger generation of Ghent was carrying the baton of tradition and culture of Flanders, having been impressed with Klaas’ display of passion a few minutes ago!! A complimentary beer coupon was all she had to share with us as a gesture of gratitude – one which we accepted with arms wide open!!
“The old gentleman with her, in uniform and all, he wanted me to pass his regards to you”, Klaas said as we waited for our turn at the counter.
“That’s really sweet of him. What was the reason though?”
“He was saying that you are from India and Indians were his brother in arms in the war. He fought that war and he shared time with a lot of Indian soldiers in the British army then….he wanted to share a gratitude for those memories of his. ‘He is welcome in Ghent…take good care of him’, that’s what he told me before leaving. I hope I have lived up to that expectation already, haven’t I?”, Klaas chuckled as we took our drinks and I had my first sip of the freshly brewed Belgian beer. Made me realize it’s such a small world indeed.
I ended up sampling at least 8 more varieties of Belgian beer before the alcohol finally got the better of my senses. For somebody coming from the subcontinent, it was my first exposure to the importance of the type of glass into which a particular type of beer has to be poured. “You could have poured it in that round glass over there and you would have said it’s a different beer from what we are drinking right now”, Klaas said as he explained about which beer out of at least a hundred listed on the menu goes into what kind of beer glass!! I have vivid memories of the deserted streets of Overpoort, the party corner in Ghent on our way back. Unfortunately, it was a weekend and since most of the students traveled to visit their families the place owners keep the bars and clubs closed on Saturdays and Sundays. That was the last bit of information I remember processing as I crashed into the bed that night.
From the statue of Jacob van Antevelde adorning the charming Ghent Friday Market square, whose sword was stolen and then mysteriously returned afterward, to the Big Cannon of Ghent – which is now covered because of the college students enjoying sleepovers inside it as part of dormitory dares, every corner of this beautiful city is filled with so many interesting stories. By the time I boarded the bus next evening out of Ghent, I had already collected stories and memories worth a lifetime for this part of Belgium. More than that, I am even more interested in understanding the subtle layers of interesting Belgian demographics – and I am sure I’m going to go back there to explore the southern provinces pretty soon.