Saturday, September 17, 2005

a saturday

Several notable landmarks can be seen as you cross Brussels south to north by train. There's the massive and excellent mural of Geluck's Le Chat, one of many comic strip characters scattered about the city. Then there's the dread Palais de Justice, which literally sits above the working-class Marolles neighbourhood, threatening crushing it with its gross, gray weight. During the Foire de Midi, the palace could be seen through the merry white bars of a ferris wheel. Past Bruxelles-Nord/Brussel-Noord, below the right-hand side of the train, there's a red-light street and its women behind windows. I used to take this northern-bound train with some frequency, but, it seems, almost never in the 2.5 years I've had a car. I feel like I should visit the street. It's less a matter of IVN being in Thailand than a mixture of Sin City and Philip K. Dick. Euro-travellers sit next to me on the train. I have no idea what language they're speaking, but their travel guide is in Spanish. I listen in, intently, and as we are close to my destination, I ask the guy opposite, in English, what language they're speaking. "Basque." Cool. He then launches into the we're-travelling-around-Europe speech, even though I had made a point of not asking him about it. He limps on and I vaguely feign interest. I have to get off now, anyway.

I arrive in Antwerp and step off the train. The station is one of the most beautiful I know. The part with the platforms resembles Paris's just-reopened Grand Palais, with its semi-cylindrical early 20th century (the station is 100 years old this year) metal-and-glass structure. The main hall has incredibly high domed ceilings. The columns are huge yet graceful. They're setting up a cat-walk, surrounded by folding chairs. Antwerp is a secondary fashion centre. The whole place could almost be a church. I exit the station. On my right, under the entrance to the Zoo, a man is chatting with a giant raccoon.

I set out looking for Pardaf, a second-hand clothes store. I found out about it a week ago exactly and have nothing else to do, so why not go clothes-shopping. The map on their website is is somewhat lacking in clarity, so I go up the wrong street and end up in the diamond area. Antwerp is a major diamond centre. Here, Gemmopolis Building isn't an empty metaphor. I wander down two empty and annoyingly long streets. I pass a synagogue inside which faithful are performing a ceremony of some sort. Antwerp is also a major Jewish centre. 40 minutes have passed. I try my luck down another street, closer to the Zoo. I ask two police officers if they know the street I'm looking for. "I don't know the streets here." I carry on 20 metres and I've found it. Two well-dressed twenty-somethings stand outside the store. I hesitate, and walk in.

The women's section is an awe-inspiring multi-storey extravaganza. How to look great at half the price. The men's section is, obviously, tucked at the back, making it easier to hide its comparatively meagre offering. I'm vaguely annoyed, but we're all used to this, by now. A pink Hugo Boss dress shirt is the first item to pique my interest. It's nice, but too faded: the colour has all but disappeared in a few crucial places. I try on this and that, including a 100 euro Boss balck two-piece suit. The jacket is okay, the pants are way too big, something else I'm used to and, in this case, actually grateful for. I end up buying a complete outfit: gray Guess? jeans with electric blue stitches (I didn't have any in that colour), a multi-coloured stripy Bellarose shirt and an awesome brown Zara leather jacket. 88 euros altogether. Not exactly cheap, but reasonable.

I haven't eaten yet, so I mull over my choices as I walk back to the station. A salad at Quick? McFlurrys are hard to resist; I saw a poster for a new fruit topping. I enter a small Delhaize supermarket. Their selection of sandwiches is far from screaming "Eat me, I taste good!" I decide to eat at home.

In the train station, the models are rehearsing for the show. I've never seen a real-life fashion show before and I've certainly never seen a rehearsal for one. The music blares. I watch for 20 minutes. 3 of the 4 models I see on the runway are bad, though sometimes interestingly-dressed. I don't know if strutting down the cat-walk is difficult, but there is a certain art to it, and the possibility to express something of your character, or of your act. One girl, wearing a semi-transparent, wedding-style dress, walks, impressively, on her toes, her sock-wearing heels a few centimetres off the ground. I can't make out if this is to make her more floating-fairy-like or to simulate the effect of the shoes she'll be wearing for the real thing. A young girl is wearing a cross between mermaid scales and a low-cut Beyoncé lamé thing. With suede protect-me-from-the-snow-of-this-Ikea-catalogue boots. She's terrible, I tire and my train is in 5 minutes.

During the ride back, I wonder if I should go to the street or not. I'm not in a hurry and I've never been there before. Still, it's strange. The beautiful serendipity of the Sin City, K. Dick and models sequence makes it irresistable.

I decide to leave my stuff in a locker at the station. I don't know the street and don't want my bags to attract attention or tempt pick-pockets. I also want to move easily. I put my clothes bag, my shoulder bag, my phone, my keys and my wallet in the locker. I doubt temptation will come, but if does, I've spared myself the struggle.

I step outside the station and the first thing to hit me is the delicious smell of grilled meat. Coincidentally, it's shopkeepers' day in the Rue de Brabant: they've all put their wares outside and the street is full of people. I decide to go down this street and come back up the other one. Give myself some time to settle in. Incense and meat odours alternate. The bazaar offers everything at once. Music blares.

A few blocks down, I turn to the left. I'm there. I had imagined a solitary, writerly experience. Had that actually been the case, maybe the temptation would have been stronger. By far the most attractive women is the very first I see: false blonde, black lingerie, huge breasts, working her space and blowing kisses. The others are not as much fun, standing or sitting idly. Quickly, it's the practical details that are amusing. A small dog accompanies one woman and I can't help but wonder if it's included in the price. Three girls sit, loudly talking to each other in what sounds like an East European language. At the end of the street, a woman sits, fully-dressed, reading the newspaper, seemingly disinterested about what's going on outside. I wonder if she aims for an older demographic.

A group of three guys is walking at the same pace as me. They stop often to negotiate prices. The girls flash signals at them, 3 fingers. I don't know if that means 30 or 300 euros, 3 hours, the number of participants or the desired level of service. It's this communal aspect I understand least. Going sex-shopping with your buddies? Stepping outside of the brothel, giving the prostitute a kiss on the cheek and striding off, declaring to the world that you've just paid for sex? Perhaps most troubling, is that after looking into a window, it's difficult to look at a pretty girl on the street without feeling that I've dirtied her, or that I've dirtied myself. It's difficult to go from appraisal to normal ogling.