I had been apprehensive about my weekend in Antwerp. I was not really sure what to expect. Not so much of the place, more of my response to the city of my youth. I went back to the old city semi-regularly when my parents were still alive but since dad died three years ago, I have not had much occasion to visit.
Late on Friday afternoon Mr M and I chugged into Central Station. The journey from London couldn’t have been more convenient. Get on the Eurostar at St. Pancras International at a civilised time; arrive in Brussels-Midi; cross over to platform 19 for the Intercity to Antwerp. It is not even necessary to interrupt our progress to queue for a local ticket as the Eurostar fair covers the cost to any Belgian station.
After checking into our hotel and freshening up we were ready to head into the old town for a pre-dinner drink and some food. I had booked a table in one of my old haunts, De Grootte Witte Arend. A pleasant café off Groenplaats with a little courtyard where we could sip an aperitif. The food was good in the way that I remembered: simple, fresh and tasty continental café food… which in my case came with plenty of grey shrimps. The coffee, even the decaffeinated, was robust and the service charming. In the damp heat of a summer’s evening, Antwerp was reassuringly familiar.
In the cold light of day, however, the emotions crept in.
The city is much smaller than London, Paris, New York,… or even sizeable provincial cities like Manchester or Milan. Consequently there are memories in every twist and turn of this medieval city. Memories of mum dragging me and my siblings down one of the shopping streets in search of winter shoes; of marching from the bus stop to school every day for six years; of waiting on the steps in Central Station as a teenager to meet friends for an afternoon of window shopping; of spending Sunday afternoons in the art house cinema followed by coffee and cake in De Lantaren – one of my favourite cafés; of buying flowers for mum on the way home from school just to surprise her; of restaurants where I shared a meal with dad on trips ‘home’ after we’d lost mum… Inevitably there were a few tears, not for the passing of time but for the sad emptiness that losing loved ones brings.
The more I wandered down familiar streets the more another type of sadness crept in too. The city of my youth was looking quite forlorn.
The global recession has left its mark. Many restaurants and cafés are standing empty, including many old favourites, or have become fast food joints. Smart shops, where I could once only aspire to shop, are either boarded up or have been turned into pop-up outlets. There was more graffiti, a lot more. The sixth form block of my old school has been sold off. Even the central library is no more. At least the space has been taken over by a college but it was a shock to see nonetheless.
The homogenisation of globalisation has also set in. More international chains have moved in and many traditional old neighbourhoods have been redeveloped into bland corporate flats. The independent character and eclectic architecture that once defined the city are slowly ebbing away…
I hadn’t expected a city the size of Antwerp to remain unchanged; I just hadn’t been ready for quite how much it has changed.
Amidst the shock of all this change there were a few glimmers of hope. I hadn’t realised that our weekend would coincide with the gay pride march, an event that would have been unthinkable in the traditional Antwerp of my youth. Admittedly I barely heard a single Flemish dialect from the revellers but the fact the city was even hosting the march suggests attitudes have moved on. Public transport remains excellent and is being expanded: familiar tram routes have been extended further into the suburbs and urban hire bikes are everywhere. The old art cinema has survived and is still screening films from Japan, Iran, Spain, France… And I even spotted a shop frontage suggesting Antwerp is getting a ‘bulk buy’ store – the first in Belgium.
On Sunday Mr M and I had lunch with the lovely G, one of my oldest friends. Amongst our exchange of news she announced that she would probably be posted abroad soon and was looking forward to adventures in a new city and time zone. With her leaving Belgium, I suspect it will be some time before I am back in Antwerp. Hopefully by then the city of my youth will have re-found the ‘gezelligheid‘ that made it such an attractive place to know.