Local Color—Ghent, Belgium:
How to Find Your Hotel If You’re Lost In Ghent

Local Color—Ghent, Belgium: How to Find Your Hotel If You’re Lost In Ghent

Back in my salad days I once tricked the Belgian government into paying to fly me & two friends to give an arts lecture in Ghent (long story).

The Kunstencentrum Vooruit (Vooruit Arts Center), where we delivered our address, was an elegant old 1910 festival hall in Ghent, with galleries and lecture halls above and a bar in the basement, and which had once been used by the Nazis during the occupation.

It’s not germane to the story at hand, but, a little over a half a century after this photograph, I gave an arts lecture in this room. (It was followed by a performance from an Icelandic band who were so twee that they sounded like they were afraid Belle & Sebastian were going to mug them for their lunch money. Vooruit photos courtesy Viernulvier.)

The folks from Vooruit put us up in a 300-year-old hotel where hotel owners’ incredibly classy cafe on the first floor kept us both caffeinated and entertained, with live a cappella opera singers, and the hotel part was reached by going through a door in the back of a closet.

Just a block or two from the hotel was a row of several cathedrals. The nearest cathedral to the hotel had four distinctive diagonal antennas coming out of its tower, and during our stay it became our landmark for getting home. It was immediately recognizable and you could see it from everywhere.

I’d jokingly told the Vooruit folks the terms of our speaking engagement were travel and lodging expenses plus one pint each of local Belgian ale, and once we’d been settled in and shown around the facility, our hosts saw us down to the bar and satisfied that, first thing.

I got a free beer in this bar. Progress!

Opening our trip first thing with a delicious pint in the basement of an elegant historic building which had been given over to a government-funded arts collective, at which we had arrived to give an lecture for which we were not qualified, and which we were delivering under assumed names, in a room where actual Nazis had convened to do their evil, definitely set the tone for our week in Ghent. For the next few days, the full weight of history, the power, wealth, and art of centuries of civilization, suffused and strangely complemented what I can only describe as something approaching the most generally carefree hedonism I have ever witnessed.

Among the many wonderful things I could say about Ghent, the sights and the people and the omnipresence of some of the world’s finest art, is it was also, bar none, the craziest party town I have ever been to. Every night I was there, our local contacts took us out, and every night, people partied like it was New Years Eve. It seemed like the clubs didn’t close.

Also, the American Apparel magazine ads had photographs of topless women in them, which, in an impressionistic way, fits. All in all, my chief impression of the inhabitants of Ghent was that many of them were refreshingly unrestrained.

One of the first nights, some folks we met at Vooruit took us out for a night on the town. We walked a few blocks from the hotel, in the shadow of the tower with the four antennas, to a square lined with with basement clubs and bars, and, carefree American kids seeing Europe on someone else’s dime, we gladly lost ourselves in the revelry, diffusing into it almost as if by osmosis. I met plenty of friendly people happy to show a tourist a good time, and danced and kibbitzed with strangers all night, in what felt like an undifferentiated, pulsating fluid of human merriment and fine Belgian ale coursing from bar to club to bar.

After winding up dancing in the last club until 8 in the morning—on a weeknight!—it only then dawned on me that I had lost all my friends, was in a strange part of town, and couldn’t find anybody who spoke English to give me directions (oh, those crazy days before iPhones!) I tried to get help from passerby but there’s only so much I could do when I didn’t speak the language, didn’t remember the name of the hotel, and didn’t know how to pronounce “Vooruit”.

We had started out just a few blocks from the hotel, but I was just lost. Somehow over the course of clubhopping all night I had gradually drifted out of sight of the familiar cathedral tower, and I was completely without bearings.

I wandered around aimlesslessly as the light and morning bustle on the streets grew, trying to get oriented.

After some time at this endeavor without any clear solution presenting itself, and truthfully, gradually beginning to wonder if I’d gotten myself into something that was at very least going to be unpleasant, suddenly, what appeared in that moment to be a break occurred… or at least, a chance for a lateral break from this misadventure into some other misadventure, which, as I wasn’t seeing any way out of the current predicament, seemed at that moment like  risk worth taking: as I stood by a bus stop feeling an increasing desperation to get back to my bed and not knowing how that was going to happen, a bus with the number “5” on the front pulled up.

Now, at home in Vapid City, the number 5 bus is how I often get home. So, at a loss for any better option, and feeling like my current plan of wandering aimlessly and not finding anyone I could could communicate with was not really any more likely to solve the problem, I crossed my fingers, and got on the Ghent #5 bus.

I grabbed a strap and stood in the aisle. And stood.

And stood.

And waited.

The Ghent #5 bus slowly threaded its way through the city, getting more and more packed with fresh-faced morning commuters on their way to work, and I stood among them, exhausted, probably smelling like I’d been dancing all night in a smoky club, and likely looking like the still-tipsy and completely irresponsible tourist that I in fact was—an obvious refugee from a late night of revelry who’d accidentally gotten himself trapped in their realm of sunlight and morning commuters. I felt spiritually filthy. Have you ever felt that way? If not, good for you. It used to happen to me occasionally in those old days before I quit doing that sort of thing. (Parenthetically: quitting drinking was one of the best things I ever did. I encourage everyone to try it. As a survey of my website may reveal, I have fewer colorful stories subsequent to that time—which is actually an improvement, in terms of life quality, if not quantity of anecdotes for colorful online content.)

Soon the bus was outside the city, winding its way through rural fields. I stared out the window, with the perfect zen of a foreigner lost halfway around the world from anything I knew, surrounded by people whose language I didn’t speak, en route to I knew not where.

I began to despair of ever seeing my bed. In my mind, a dread began to gnaw harder at the edges of my consciousness, saying that I’d miscalculated the wisdom of this plan.

Soon, buildings reappeared, and the bus entered another town.

After another few stops, the bus reached a stop along a plaza, beside which I could see a police station. At this point, in a moment of what felt in the moment like clarity as close to a sensible idea as was still possible this far into the misadventure presented itself to me as my only remaining option: turn myself in to the police. I got off the bus, now lost beyond lost, disheveled, hoping for the best from grasping at this slimmest of straws, I went into the station.

None of the police spoke English. However, through pantomime, in what may or may not have been an exceptional morning display in this apparently sometimes chaotic city, I managed to communicate to a policewoman that I wanted a pen and paper.

Once I had them I proceeded to sketch out out a sloppy schematic of the cathedral tower with the four distinctive antennas. After much gesticulation on my part, and increasingly quizzical looks between the cops, the policewoman finally took my arm and led me outside the front door, back out onto the plaza. She looked at me, seeming confused, and pointed upwards…

At the cathedral with the four antennas. Which was looming over us, maybe half a block away from the police station.

On the very same plaza where I had gotten off the Ghent #5 bus to turn myself in. Where we were now standing.

I walked back to the hotel, got into bed, and slept until 4pm.

The belfry of Ghent (not a cathedral, actually.) Photo by Benoit Brummer.
The Belfry of Ghent (not a cathedral, actually.) Photo by Benoit Brummer. Licensed under CC BY 4.0