I strolled through the Vrijdagmarkt in Ghent, Belgium, last Sunday morning, still slightly hungover from a sprawling bike scavenger hunt through the city the previous day. A veteran farmer with white hair and red, calloused hands hawked different breeds of laying hens to the city folks. Sidewalk cafes slowly became magnets for those looking for caffeine, and the sun emerged from behind the great towers and cathedrals of Central Ghent–it’d be another warm day.
Like the last time I was in Europe, in 2003, I’ve traveled and studied this summer without a phone. My mind feels much more at ease without the expectation of constant communication and instant response. And as my sister noted to me in a written note, isn’t is somehow easier to be “in the now” when everything is new?
Yes, it is.
And whether we’re in a new country–I’d never been to Belgium–or within ten miles of our hometown, I’m reminded that one of the best ways to create mindfulness, to relax, and to be present is to observe. To let, seek, or give a chance for the endless, amazing diversity of sensory experience to captivate you in different ways.
I’ve attempted to allow myself to be in the moment this summer: to hear the Wood Pigeons cooing in the 14th century courtyards of Lincoln College; to see the egalitarian cyclists of all shapes, colors, and sizes jockey for position on narrow Oxford streets busy with double decker busses; to taste braised pork cheeks cooked in brown beer sauce in a local restaurant in Ghent; to feel the vibrations of the oncoming trains at Paddington Station in London; to read and reread 16th century English Literature without the rhythms and demands of multitasking that can become commonplace during the teaching year.
Unlike when traveling alone in 2003, I felt like I had my voice this time around–10 years of life will give you that confidence. I attempted to strike up conversation with anybody, anywhere, despite my utter lack of Flemish/Dutch language skill, the main reason how I ended up having such a glorious day in Ghent, interacting with bartenders, baristas, chefs and patrons, each taking a chance to scrawl on my tattered map pictured above.
Ghent residents are justifiably proud of their city; some say it’s the most underrated destination in Europe. If you’re interested in history, food, and drink, as I am, put it on your list. It’s not too expensive…yet.
Here are some of my recommendations: Cafe Labath and Simon Says are great cafes with welcoming staffs, head to De Lieve for great beer and authentic Belgian food, and check out The STAM Museum for fascinating civic history. There is a huge pedestrianized area on the central part of the city, where I experienced a new take on a somewhat-familiar sight.
It nearly took my breath away walking into the Cathedral in Ghent. 10 years ago, as a 21-year old undergraduate “studying” abroad, I strolled into many of the great churches and cathedrals of Europe: La Sagrada Familia, Notre Dame, St. Peter’s Basilica, etc. They were impressive buildings to me at the time, but I felt less awe.
My coursework this summer on literature during the English Reformation has refreshed my knowledge of the great Catholic and Protestant schism–all over Europe, the various churches and cathedrals tell the history through stained glass, altars, and other iconography (or lack of). Catholicism won out in Ghent, but religious strife, among other factors, prevented the city from continued ascension towards status as one of Europe’s Great Cities (it was Europe’s second largest city behind Paris for several hundred years).
I’m completing this blog post after hearing a graduate school colleague, 40 years removed from literature study, discuss the experience of rereading classic texts after accumulating so many joys, sorrows, worries, and wonders over his adult life. He’s been blown away by the power of the same words given his new perspective. Based on just a few days away from studying in Oxford, I can relate.
Like revisiting art, travel at different points of our lives can spark different passions, interests, and memories, creating experiences rich in new ways.
Can you be alone and content, in a new place, where cultural or language barriers might be an issue? Are you willing to let your five senses take in as much as you can–without digital distraction–and not worry about what time or day it is? Have you returned to a place/book and had a completely “new” experience?