Saturday morning was an early start, as it had been a late night in Bruges. The car must have smelt of three young men after a night on beer and heated debated and the cold had just about soaked through to our bones – any longer asleep, we might really have been cold. The drive to the station was preceded by a quick coffee in a Belgian, or Flemish, coffee shop. Peter and Paul noticed a woman grooming herself in the café’s reflection and marvelled at the vanity of the people of Bruges. Every nation must have an ego, even though it might not seem that way. The Teutonic peoples of Europe are fastidious and seemingly mirror-less. But national efficiency must come about through personal image, which goes towards creating the perfect social machine. This woman was caught in the preparation of her social face, thus exposing the mechanisms that go into creating the output.
The goodbye was quick and uneventful; Paul wished Peter and Thomas a safe drive up to Amsterdam, making sure to take breaks and try to flush some of the alcohol out of their system. Thomas was going to be in his element, riding shotgun and keeping the green times rolling; though his fear of other cars and the road in general was great, his finger dexterity could keep him occupied through many tense moments. The little car stayed in its spot on the car park for a while as Paul walked towards the station, though the two other friends were more likely preparing themselves for their own journey, rather than the tearful and promised sayonara longingly dreamt up by a more sentimental soul.
Paul and Thomas had debated at length the previous night about the merits of the city of Bruges, the Venice of the North. Walking around those dead streets in the early hours of the morning, they looked at the imitation architecture and sensed the forced isolation of its inhabitants, not realising the one-time importance of this now middle-class coupon-weekend destination-hotspot. The difference between a theme-park and town is that the former’s reciprocal interaction is planned and everybody knows the drill; there is no breaking of the social contract, because another has been drawn up and everybody knows the drill – the parameters have been deeply reduced. But in a town, people live there and although it is fine for tourists to visit, the interaction can be somewhat unexpected, but that is a good sign; it is the expression of individuals in our social contract.
Paul wanted Bruges to be a town, but found only one-sided interaction from all sides involved. The angriness of its inhabitants came across as the grumpiness of an employer at a fast-food chain might come across – pathetic and incomprehensible. If there is a story of suppression and the underdog, it is not known and you marvel, like Julien Sorel at the Hôtel de la Môle, at how the people of such a town could be so unhappy. Helpfulness is lost and is replaced by a ‘polite’ manner of restraining from being impolite in simple social transactions.
Such was the attitude of the service industry in this fairytale town that the three friends decided to leave the hostel that they had already paid for, taking their beer glasses with them, to spend the night in a small car. But don’t let’s put it all down to the town.
It was with also with a similar attitude of energetic disappointment and a pair of beige chinos and grey peacoat that Paul ran for the train that was to take him to Brussels. European train stations reflect more than British ones; it may be the tile that they use to pave every surface, or the positioning of tunnels and staircases and broad windows in line with the sun’s course, or the radiating, mild-mannered disposition of their public transport staff.
He arrived at the station and telephoned the woman he was meeting.