BRUGES: This trip, booked months earlier, came at the perfect moment in time. I switched-off all thoughts and feelings of the previous year – witnessing the rapid decline of my last remaining parent – and was able to embrace a period of travel and discovery. Oh, and proposing to my girlfriend.
So this is a strange travel blog entry because it also wraps around the death of a loved one and the raw experience that came after that; it’s a collection of scribbles that I made in an A4 spiral-bound notebook over a period of days.
November 13. My mum came to me today in a waking dream. Two days since she died. I was on the Metro, an urban commuter train that plunges underground towards the centre of the city. Nothing out of the ordinary. I was in a daze. I had music on my headphones, Muse, from the Swordfish soundtrack. Uplifting sounds against the tide of bleak sorrow. The train was busy but the seat before me was empty. Abruptly I can see my dead mother sitting there… gaunt, a starved skeleton with waxy flesh…. but rapidly the flesh of her face began to fill out and gain colour as the wasted muscles returned. Her hair became blonde again and grew long and flowed luxuriously around her shoulders. Her face became young and beautiful. She leaned forward, grabbed both my hands in hers, smiling she kissed me on the cheek and said “Thank you.” And then she was gone. I got off the train and stood in the station for 10 minutes, playing the track over again. It was an incredibly real and vivid experience.
November 15. Sitting in Tyneside Coffee Rooms waiting for my long time friend Richy. It’s the second time I’ll be meeting him here in 2 days. He’s there for me, when I need him most. It’s 20 years since the Tyneside became a regular haunt for me and Richy, both age 19. And 20 years since Richy knocked on the front door of my parents house, for the first time since he was 11, desperate and needing help, and changed my life forever: a good thing.
I’ve known Richy for 33 years. He’s as solid a friend as you could ever wish for.
Apart from a recent refurb, the Tyneside is exactly the same as it ever was; it even has many of the same staff, 20 years later; they own it, they’re proud of it…and this age of corporate hegemony in every city centre, the Tyneside is a welcome bastion of independence. Still serving mugs of coffee. Still serving ham & cheese toasties. Like they always did. I take some comfort in this, and, reflect on the epic arc of my life in these last 20 years…all the things that have occurred whilst the Tyneside slid graciously along.
November 16th. The house is full of Norwegians. Mum’s brother and two sisters and their husbands. My aunts and uncles. My family. I am not alone. I am not alone. I am not… alone. My cousin Kenn-Ole arrives in 2 days. It is great to have them here. The house has been horrible since mum died. Empty. Soulless and alien. Now there is life.
It’s weird and sad that I’m unable to step next door and seek comfort and support there. Pete lost his father at the same time as I lost my mum. He’s down on the south coast at Hayling Island, dealing with everything there. He’s coming all the way back for mum’s funeral, then back south again for his father’s. Strange days.
November xth. The day of the funeral I woke up feeling sick with dread. This was the moment of finality. Today they were going to burn my mum’s body down to ash. I was desperate to escape this feeling so I went for a fast and hard walk through Jesmond Dene. Then I went to a cafe on St George’s Road… it began to rain, and a beautiful amber light flooded the place. Pat, one of the family friends, she texted me to say there was a rainbow over Jesmond. Mum. I smiled.
The funeral was beautiful. Pete (next door), Uncle Erling, Alex (my childhood friend) and I carried mum’s coffin into the chapel. The service was long with many people and with many tributes. We played the Girl From Ipanema, and a Nordland Folk Song with classical music.
The wake was a feast of traditional Norwegian dishes and cakes cooked up by my sister, with help from our aunts. It was a wonderful sight. A definitive final gasp of what the house used to be like… full of people laughing and eating good food. Mum would have been very proud. However, for me, the night was ruined by a phone call… the police in Bristol rang to inform us that our house in Bristol had been burgled. I was gutted. I felt like I’d been kicked in the teeth.
Mike and I drank beer and carried our glasses and spare cans down into the impenetrable darkness of the Dene, late at night. Both of us know the place so well we don’t need to see to know where we were, or where we were heading. We walked fast and talked fast and it was a good solace to have Mike there as company. Over the past five years that I’ve known him he’s become ever more the loyal and reliable friend.
November xxth. The day after the funeral was supposed to be a day of reflection and coming to terms with what I’ve just been through with mum. Instead, it was a half day in Newcastle, before having to barrel back to Bristol to deal with the burglary and secure the house. In the morning I met up with my cousin Kenn-Ole (chap that did front cover art for Yellow Dawn) and rode the Metro to Tynemouth. The previous night I’d said, “I want to go on the train for nostalgia. I want to walk along the coast in rain and howling wind.”
I got what I asked for. Rain and howling wind. Pete met us there, he’d driven and was going to be our ride back. We headed down onto the pier and walked slowly along, hands hugging luke warm take-out coffee and gritting our teeth and squinting against the icy onslaught. It was good though. It suited my mood perfectly. The pier is over 1/2 a mile long, a vast stone monolith lying on its side that stretches out into the North Sea.
Coming back from the pier, Kenn-Ole and Pete and I trudged up to the main drag, near my old school, and stepped into the salt & vinegar warmth of Marshalls fish and chips shop. Best fish and chips, ever, period. The wind had died down and the rain had been replaced by weak sunlight so we grabbed take-out boxes and sat on a sandstone wall of the priory overlooking a 50 metre drop to the beach below. It was heavenly at first, delicious tasting food and good memories…
We drove home. Girlfriend and I packed and got ready to leave. I went upstairs and sat in mum’s room for a long time, staring at the bed that hadn’t been touched since they took her body away. The indentation in the pillow from her head was still there. I cried then. A natural release of intense emotion.
And then we were on the road, driving back to Bristol, back to my home. But it wasn’t the soft landing I needed. It was a long and gruelling drive, and there to welcome us was a messy, damaged and violated house.
Numb, is the best way to describe this period of my life.
I’m walking around, I’m doing things that living people do… but I’m not really here or there or anywhere. I’m this compressed nugget of consciousness, squashed down and curled up, cold with nausea and nervous tension. I can’t believe what is happening and yet I can also utterly accept it. I’m just gliding, I guess.
I only have 2 days in Bristol before we’re due to leave on a trip to Bruges. Booked months ago. Now the timing is literally perfect. I can’t wait. Bruges. Escape. Release. Decompression.
But meanwhile I’m in Bristol…
I go to the cathedral and light a candle for my dad, as I’ve done many times in the last three years. But then I light a second candle, this one for my mum, and I place it beside dad’s candle and the emotions tear me up. I croak out, “Hey Dad, meet Mum,”
There’s a brief but rewarding rendezvous with Simon and Hagen.
Tomorrow we’re up early and off to Bruges.
I can’t wait.
Bruges a small medieval city in the Flemish part of Belgium. Tried going there last year but for some reason it just didn’t happen.
I’m here now, sitting at a small circular table in the reception lounge of our hotel… it’s a nice little spot to sit and read or write in my notebook.
Bruges is a fantastic place.
There was a vast rainbow hanging over the city as we approached. Hello mum, I smiled. She knew I was coming here.
Once we checked into the hotel and got settled, Oj rang her folks. I found myself standing there feeling strange… that she still had parents to share this trip with. It was an odd moment. Later, I composed a text on my phone and sent it to the mobile number still stored in my phone under “mum”. Strange, maybe…
Sitting at the circular glass topped table in the hotel, getting a little sozzled on the local brew. Zot! Feeling fluffy. A version of one of Depeche Mode’s classics is on my headphones. The reception / lounge occupies an area between two buildings; the hotel is formed of a sprawl of interconnected structures. Above where I’m sitting the roof is of curved translucent plastic. Heavy rain is hammering down and regular flashes of lighting are turning the pages of this notebook bluish white as I write the words down.
It’s barely stopped raining since we got here but that hasn’t spoiled a thing. Surrounded by such an incredible array of medieval buildings, it helps to lend a certain atmosphere. And I’m well wrapped up when I go out.
Yesterday I proposed to girlfriend with the ring I bought several weeks ago.
She looked stunned, as if slapped.
Then she laughed and threw her arms around me, “Yes, yes, yes!!!!” she said.
I went to the Basillica of Holy Blood. Stepping through heavy wooden doors I entered a plain stone chapel that is almost 900 years old. I was overwhelmed and awed by the atmosphere of sanctuary and peace. It was beautiful. I lit two candles for dad and my mum. I sat there for a long time, dealing with emotions.
Being in Bruges is helping me to heal.
26th November I’m back in Bristol. Sitting in Boston Tea Party. Outside is pissing down with freezing rain. This time yesterday I was in Bruges. Long journey back but not unpleasant. I thought I would feel sad today because Bruges was so amazing and little moments keep flashing up repeatedly inside my mind. But I don’t feel sad at all. I think I’m healing.
Sonja texted me this morning to say there was a rainbow above the city. I dashed upstairs to take a look and I saw it looming over the house. “Hello mum,” I called out, my hand open wide and extended from my arm toward the pane of glass. “Hello mum,” I said again, quietly this time.
November. Getting into the hotel, we dumped our bags and headed out for a walk. Hitting the cobbled streets, surrounded by so many beautiful medieval buildings, a fairytale picture land of ancient structures and modern facades… I had a voice in my head saying, “I’m here.” With relief, delight and a touch of disbelief. I thought this trip wasn’t going to happen, and it was so important that it did.
The area of our hotel was rammed with chocolate shop.
November. It was really bloody cold and quite windy. One of the chocolate shops grabbed my attention because it looked a little more traditional and homely than the others. There was a sign saying, “Try our delicious hot chocolate drink.” I nipped in and got us one to share. Wow.
November. My girlfriend and I enjoying our hot chocolate in the freezing cold. It’s simple moments like this that you often remember most fondly. The warmth of the cup against the bitterly cold wind and the silky sweetness of the chocolate going down your throat, taste buds tingling – rarely have I had chocolate as good as this before.
November. We stopped at this place called The Hobbit, opposite The Tolkien and a bar called the Bruges Bear. I had a steak that was nearly 1/2 a kilo of meat. Jo had the most amazing ribs. I’d definitely come back here next time I come to Bruges.
This was going to be a special night. Oj didn’t know it but I had a ring burning a hole in my pocket.
Rain defined this trip, but it didn’t spoil anything; in fact, the rain lended itself the atmosphere. The old city is very compact and stunningly well-preserved, with this fabulous fusion of small modern aspects fusing into the seriously old. Bruges is a perfect long-weekend destination, and somewhere I would return to without hesitation.
November. Did a lot of walking this first full day. Basically took in the whole of the old town. Quick stops for hot chocolate or beer throughout the day.
November. Did some of the touristy things, including paying a visit to the brewery for the local beer – Zot. Well worth a visit if you’ve not been to a brewery before – plus a glimpse at some of the older history of beer making with a great little museum.
November. Still in the brewery. Ever wondered what happened to C3P0 after he finished Star Wars? He ended up cleaning out fermentation tanks in Bruges.
November. If you walk to the edges of the medieval heart of the city, bordered by water ways on all sides, you find yourself in an experience like Westworld, stepping out from one genre sector into another… from picturesque medieval out into a drab urban sprawl. The weather turning particularly glum at this moment didn’t help, neither did the bleak-looking windmills… so we abruptly turned face and plunged hungrily back into the fantasy.
November. I think we must have walked 16 miles this first day. Ate at a place called Vivaldi’s, just round the corner from the hotel. I had rabbit. Mmmm, delish.
November: Caught a ride to some WWI sites. We started at Pachendale. The cemetery is called Tyne Cot because a lot of the lads who died there were from the North East, and one of the German bunkers reminded them of cottages on the river Tyne. Bizarre… I never knew this. It created a strangely intimate emotional connection with the place… over 11,000 gravestones, and over 35,000 names carved into the walls of the memorial of soldiers whose bodies were never found… drowned in the mud or blown to pieces.
Leaving Pachendale we headed to Hill 62, also known as Sanctuary Wood, where there are trenches remaining from the WWI.
The trench complex zig zags through the trees, like the castellations of a fortified wall… the ground still showed the crater impacts of shells that had exploded 95 years ago.
I got down into one trench which had this concrete lined tunnel going off into unknown places. The whole area was eerily silent but from inside this shaft I could hear the creepy drip-drip-drip of water and I got a freaky feeling that there was something not too far down there… watching me, seeing me silhouetted in the daylight. I stood up and got the heck out.
November: After Hill 62 we went to Ypres, a town that was literally flattened during the war but was rebuilt, to identical fashion, even the ancient medieval buildings, stone for stone. Jo and I found a little eating place after spending 2 hours in the WWI museum there… the museum is a Must See.
November. Another fantastic place which I’d gladly return to Bruges just to visit again, was a tiny, smoky pub across the road from The Hobbit. A vast variety of beers and a fabulous atmosphere… it was like sitting in the cafe at the end of 1984.
I discovered one incredible brew made from honey. Dark and insanely delicious.
November. On my final morning there I went for a big walk. I passed the placed I had bought that delicious hot chocolate the first night and saw the sign saying “cosy room upstairs, coffee, chocolate, cake.”
So I went up and found this little slice of heaven. Unbelievably quaint and cosey. I sat myself down, pulled out all my notes and dropped into the writing zone. Brilliant.
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