October 13, 2006
I was standing at a gas station on German autobahn at 2am holding up a sign that said 'Belgium' not expecting anyone to stop. But this guy in a floppy beret filling up the tank of his Citroën told me he would be happy to take someone away from Germany and back to his country. His English had been influenced by summers in Scotland and a year spent doing graduate work in Alabama. The resulting accent was absurd, but his utter seriousness made laugher impossible.
He was s supervisor in an industrial plastics in a factory and talked about his work with gentle enthusiasm. He talked about his Flemish wife's fish stew—"I dream of her visbouillon." He talked about his tulips. He smoked. I tried to imagine a house smelling of fish and cigarettes surrounded by gardens.
When we reached Luxembourg he breathed a sigh of relief, "I hate Germany. The language, the people, the landscape. Irrational. Racist probably, but there it is. Soon we'll be home." He smiled to himself and threw the cigarette out the window. The car accelerated. He turned the radio on, and turned the radio off. I tried to sleep.
I was woken with a nudge. "Here we are," he whispered. It didn't look any different to me except for the huge streetlights which line all the major roadways in Belgium. In the morning dim they lit the road with blue clarity. He noticed me noticing the light. "You know the astronauts can see Belgium from the space shuttle at night. The lights make it look like map. They say it is beautiful." He looked over at me. "Some day, I'd like to go up there."
He turned on the radio again. It was a someone with a slightly nasal voice giving a speech on the independence of the Congo. "Our king," he explained. Then the radio announcer said that the king was dead. That speech was the most important one he had ever given. The driver shut off the radio. "My god," he murmured, "Queen Fabiola will be devastated."
We drove in silence, but I noticed him tearing up. "I'm glad I heard it Belgium," he said. After that we didn't talk any more.