30 years ago, April 16: The 1987 European crusade begins in Brussels and Brugge.


Previously: the introduction

Thirty years ago this summer, I was in Europe. It was Round Two in the chronicle of foreign adventures. The debut previously has been described in great detail, ending in August of 1985, when an idea began taking root.

AFTER THE FIRE: Euro ’85, Part 34 … The final chapter, in which lessons are learned and bridges burned.

 … Once wasn’t enough. There’d have be another, and if so, how would I arrange my life for what might be two long years, until my funds enabled the next escape from our stifling Reaganite compound?

There was a conclusion.

Europe changed my life. What I didn’t notice at the time was my life changing in order to get to Europe. Finally, I cared about something, and finally, out of nowhere, emerged a work ethic.

Who’d have guessed it?

The preceding narrative was constructed with the help of souvenirs, receipts and a few stray notes, but significantly, it lacked visual reinforcement, as I’d not gotten around to digitalizing vast stacks of old slides into a semblance of usefulness.

Regular readers will recall my purchase some months back of an Epson scanner capable of assisting in this effort. I’m not sure exactly how many slides are in my possession. They originally were taken during my trips abroad, circa 1985 – 1994, using old-school Pentax cameras, one manual and the other automatic. The slides have been in boxes, unseen, for more than 20 years.

Arbitrariness in collating at long last has yielded to a process approximating progress-by-design, and now I’m in a position to document my four-month-long 1987 trip to Europe. This time around, the images will take precedence.

Over the next few weeks, I’m going back to the trip’s start in mid-April and playing it forward. Assuming sustained effort on my part, I’ll soon return to a point where periodic updates roughly jibe with the “30 years ago today” organizational conceit. Until then, I’m playing catch-up.

I hope you’re entertained, although in truth, it’s something I’m doing primarily for me. I have no choice except to live in the current world, and I’m happy with that, but for a few minutes each day, I’m exploring my past … before I forget it entirely.

My flight landed in Brussels on Thursday, April 16, 1987.

The rough itinerary began with a one-month Eurailpass in Belgium, Netherlands, Switzerland and Italy until mid-May, then crossing into the allegedly forbidding East Bloc for two months, to emerge in mid-July.

By this time I’d be in the company of my friend Barrie Ottersbach, and a second one-month railpass would be activated. We’d explore Germany, France, Ireland, and wherever else the train tracks took us.

The first night of my second European vacation was spent in Sleep Well, a Brussels hostel. The next morning my railpass was initiated and I set out for Brugge (in Flemish; it’s Bruges in French). The plan was to spend three nights there, April 17, 18 and 19.

In the thirty years following this maiden voyage to Brugge — I prefer the Flemish — I’ve been there on at least seven separate occasions. As with so many other cumulative experiences, it is difficult to eliminate what I’ve learned since, and to recall how it felt the very first time.

As with so many other European destinations, it mostly felt confusing. At the risk of over-simplifying, European culture was far more localized then. Crossing borders really seemed like passages into distinctly different places. Multinational infrastructure was present, just not pervasive.

In addition, no one was staring down at their smart phones.

Upon debarking in Brugge, I navigated a path with a paper map directly to the targeted youth hostel. At the time, it was known as the Snuffel Sleep-In, and a major selling point was daily Happy Hour, which lasted precisely one hour and offered small (10 ounces?) glasses of mass-market lager (Maes Pils?) for roughly 40 cents each.

That a hostel even had a bar was innovation enough for me. Happy Hour worked wonderfully to soothe my anxieties, even if it contributed nothing to expanding my appreciation of indigenous Belgian ales — which as it turned out, took far longer. Snuffel still exists, although it doesn’t look remotely the same.

The first photo of 1987 shows the spires of St. Salvator (left), and the Church of Our Lady (right). I remember being fascinated by the misty skyline and tree removal work-in-progress.

From the window of my room at Snuffel’s, the local wholesaler is seen unloading kegs of beer for Happy Hour.

My memories of this first trip to Brugge center on a vague mishmash of cobblestones, bricks and canals. The Hotel Spinola (painted on the whitewashed wall) seems to have disappeared, although it might have been renamed.

Hundreds of years ago, Brugge’s water connection to the sea became silted, and in effect, the city was rendered into … yes, a backwater (literal pun intended). Commerce slowed, time passed and the city remained largely as it was.

During the late 19th-century, tourists from the United Kingdom began rediscovering the Old World charms of the continent, an interest facilitated by ferries and railroads. These visitors gradually transformed Brugge into a year-round vacation destination, which it remains today, and provided obvious incentives to restore rather than demolish.

Brugge also was lucky, being situated outside the war zones of the 20th century. Consequently, this canal and these medieval commercial buildings remained intact, as here.

Next is the small lake called the Minnewater, around which is a former beguinage and current convent. There’s a difference in the two.

Begijnhof (Beguinage) Brugge

An architectural complex which was created to house beguines: lay religious women who lived in community without taking vows or retiring from the world.

These days, my inclination is to stay in one place and explore as much as possible in a more restricted area. In 1987, I was young and had a railpass;the more you used it, the cheaper travel became — or so it seemed at the time.

Consequently, on Friday I took a brief train trip to Oostende to gaze upon the ocean, then on Saturday mounted an excursion to Antwerp. The view of stained glass is from Antwerp’s cathedral.

Finally, one of the great old train stations of Europe, also in Antwerp. I’m reminded of the venerable rolling stock still in use during the 1980s.

How did I manage to take a photograph of an otherwise busy train station with almost no humans visible? It points to my deficiencies as a photographer, in that humans weren’t always allowed to stray into the perfect postcard shots I envisioned.

Of course, I might have purchased the postcards and used my expensive film for the people living there. You live and you learn.

Next: Amsterdam