We landed in Brussels half-delirious and totally over it … the 30-hour long-haul flight from Australia was replete with all the usual horrors: loudly airsick person across the aisle, hysterically crying child a few rows back, water doled out in tiny drink bottles begetting perpetual thirst, weak sleeping pills, weird food options, bad rom-coms …
But looking out the window on the way down and seeing all the funny neat houses with their austere-middle-management-type architecture, all the green fields and white wind turbines, all the crisp early light, was a new kind of radical. That’s fucking Belgium down there! We’re going to be in this place, the opposite side of the world, where we don’t know anything, and hardly anyone.
It was probably seven or eight in the morning by this time, and we were met by two friends in a turquoise-green van, papered with DIY skate company stickers and harbouring a case of warm Jupiler tins. This van – along with another of the same make and model, only red, and with a better built-in fridge – would be our home for the next week, as our gang of eight drove from Antwerp to Malmo, questing for skate parks, sunny days and strong beer.
All of which is a fun idea until you’ve built up five days’ worth of hangovers, food poisoning and skating sweat without any showers.
But whatever, the highlights were things like …
Antwerp was one of my favourite cities on our whole trip – the first place we went into was a shop with skulls and urchins, but I didn’t buy any because I still had to pass customs in five or six more countries. And the last place we went into was essentially a beer café. I have never drunk so much beer in my life. I also didn’t drink beer again for the rest of the trip, and probably not for another three months once we were back in Australia.
Doel is an abandoned town/doomed city in East Flanders. It’s supposed to be demolished en masse to expand Antwerp’s harbour. But it’s got this beautiful thing happening where colourful street art is climbing the walls of all the empty houses and shops like rough Ironlak ivy. There was also Roa artwork and a windmill, all of which I was impressed by. And no venomous snakes or spiders in any of the overgrown houses (natural Australian instincts were in overdrive).
ON THE ROAD
Things like driving on the Autobahn, spotting deer and buzzards, keeping an eye out for wolves, collecting wild poppies and acorns in a vacant lot, photographing nature collections, finding the odd jellyfish, the best spiced whiskey I've ever had (can someone in Europe send me a box of William Lawson Super Spiced Whiskey?) …
The DIY camp in Hannover, Germany gave me a taste for year-round Christmas decorations in outdoor trees, as well as fortresses made of pallets, fake plants, and plastic jewels.
Hamburg was colourful, dirty, scary and cool – we parked the vans in the parking lot, got drunk and barbecued bratwurst … I probably laughed the hardest I’ve ever laughed in that city. I was also the second-most scared I’ve ever been when I was trying to sleep in the van while a homeless man circled outside, muttering and yelling into the night. And in German, no less.
In Copenhagen we slept in the vans on the outskirts of Christiania, a ‘free town’ that to my Australian mind was just completely incomprehensible. And before we slept, we trekked out to a little beach on the shore of Christiania’s lake – past beautiful handmade houses and strange rambling constructions – built a fire and drank beers and laughed until the early hours.
There was a festival in Malmo, Sweden, when we got there – we caught the end of a Graveyard set, ate burritos and drank Coronas, somewhat culturally inexplicably. We walked for miles through the rain to some scary-loose pub to find two ex-pat Australians, who would lead us through the city and the bars and eventually get us so dead-lost we ended up on the grounds of what was possibly a mental hospital, carrying a cardboard cut-out clown, all arguing about how to get back to the hostel. I also remember laughing a lot playing a weird board game in a pub in Malmo – I think it was called Caromse or something, going by the drunken scrawling in my notebook.
And after all that, we waved to the guys in the vans at Copenhagen airport and turned our sights to Iceland … with the hope of a big of rehab and rest, and whatever the strangest place in the world had in store for us.