Thursday, June 23, 2011

Lost in Brussels

Brussels, I was told, was a city one either loved or hated; the room for compromise was small, if not non-existent, and since there was nothing to see in there anyway (unlike Liege, Louvain, or Brugge), it was not really worth seeing. Still, I found the place charming, mixing the most splendid urban decrepitude with some of the most gorgeous architecture I've seen yet (I am quite partial to the Brabantine Gothic). When, on the second day of our brief stay in Brussels, it was clear that the rest of the family were more keen on sleeping and eating, I decided to tour the city-- or at least a section of it-- on foot. It should be easy; my hotel was right across the Bruxelles-Midi station anyway, but I didn't want to waste my money, so I took the more romantic option.

It was an aimless forty five minutes of walking that followed next; I passed through some predominantly Turkish neighborhoods, where hundreds of Muslim men congregated outside sidewalk cafes. There were very little women, I noticed, and they were all staring at me-- I was the only non-Turk walking the streets then, which must have struck them as odd. It wasn't long before the towering, magnificent spire of the Brussels Town Hall reared itself to my right-- a glimmering spike of pearl and silver it looked to me, crowned by a golden statue of St. Michael trampling the Devil underneath. Finally, I found myself in the middle of Brussels' spectacular Grand Place. When I got there, a function was about to begin at the Town Hall, evidenced by a large number of men and women dressed to the nines waiting outside the premises. The cops were also there to secure the place, as were the last wave of tourists for the day, taking photo after photo of every architectural detail imaginable.

Soon I found myself on the main road again. This time, a different landmark caught my eye-- it was the Rainbow Flag that now asserted itself, and I realized that I was in the middle (or perhaps the threshold?) of Brussels' gay district. Curiously, I spied a Catholic Church just ahead of me; and more curious, it stood within walking distance of a gay bar. I tried to enter the church, but it was almost half past nine by the time I got there, so it was already locked. Ah well, I thought. Then a priest of the Armenian Church passed by, accompanied by a family of four; or rather, he accompanied the family of four on the way to their nameless destination. They noticed me holding my camera, and the priest smiled at me-- which I naturally intuited as him saying "Yes, young man, I do not mind having my picture taken by a curious tourist such as yourself."

I felt a tap on my shoulder, and when I looked around, I saw a huge man, probably 6'2 or 6'3 and 250lbs, shod in the tightest of shirts I'd ever seen. Are you a photographer? he said. His voice was deep and gravelly and had a musical quality to it; like a pirate's, who sang opera in the shower. Yes, well not really, I like to take pictures, but I'm not a photographer. Oh? he said. Do you not have a license? I don't, I said, it's more of a hobby than anything. He gave me a grin, as if to say that he understood what I meant. But you are a Catholic? I mean, why are you taking photos of the church? Yes, I answered, I'm a Catholic, and I was just at the Cathedral earlier, I loved it, it was gorgeous, I took so many photos. Then the man's face twisted into an inscrutable smile. I'm a Catholic too he said. Well, I was, but I gave up that shit a long time ago. He stressed the word shit as if it were the key to understanding the universe, as if in it were sublimized all the wisdom, folly, and cosmic mystery of all the ages that have been and were yet to be. Come with me, you look tired! he said. Being the adventurous sort, and being in an especially adventurous mood that night, I acquiesced, and followed the rotund gentleman.

It didn't take long, since as I soon found out, he was seated at the gay bar near the church. Sensing my apprehension, he said, Don't worry, I'm not going to do anything. It's just food. We got to his table, where a bottle of red wine was waiting, a glass for himself, and some napkins neatly piled to one side. So, he said. Then a pause. Yes? So I'm trying to understand, what is a young man like you doing with the Church? I smiled sheepishly and fumbled for a semblance of an answer. Well you see... It's like this... And then... The overarching theme of my rambling answer was that: a) I am a product of history, and that history, as it stands, was largely shaped by the Church; b) I owe a lot of my education to the Church; c) the Church has always made sense to me (a crappy answer); and d) that, no matter how I tried, I can't escape the Church. The man licked his lips for a moment, trying to find an answer. Finally, he spoke: I was born in the southern Netherlands, he said, and in university I was part of the Student Catholic Action. I discerned a vocation to the priesthood and lasted two years in the seminary. Then, as if he realized it wasn't in chronological order, he added: When I was younger, my family would always visit the Black Christ of Maastricht in the summer. We also prayed the rosary every night as a family. My uncle was a priest, he said. You are a Pee-noy, right?

I replied: in our family, there are only a handful of priests, and they're all second or more distant cousins of our branch of the family. Yes, I am from the Philippines. From the glorious and dirty city of Manila. There is a Black Christ in the Netherlands too? In Manila, we have an image of Christ called the Black Nazarene. Every year, the procession attracts millions of the damned and the desperate. A nanosecond of a lull followed; then I asked him, what made you leave the Church? He heaved a huge sigh, and said, Why, the fact that I'm gay of course! He said it matter-of-factly and followed it with a huge, booming laugh. A pirate's laugh, who probably had a taste for Jacques Brel. I'm waiting for my boyfriend, he said. How old are you? I'm twenty two, I answered. You are? But my dear boy, you look like you just crawled out (he emphasized this) of your nineteenth year! Well thanks, I said. My boyfriend is nineteen! But he's taller than you! Then as if the cosmos conspired to prove to me that this gentleman did indeed have a boyfriend, his phone rang as he was saying all this. His ringtone was a Kylie Minogue song.

He's coming in a bit. Am I keeping you? You should meet him, just shake his hand, he's a Catholic too, an altar boy. Intriguing, I said, and no, you're not keeping me. I'm just enjoying the city by myself. Then I asked him: an altar boy? Really? Deep down, though, I really wanted to ask what he was doing with a barely legal piece of jailbait. The gentleman answered: indeed he is. He's Italian you see, French Italian to be precise. And where is he coming from? From Benediction, at another church, with his grandmother. A lull, then he asked me: What are you doing in Brussels, anyway? I answered that I was on a family vacation, but that they decided to stay in the hotel because they were too tired. I rarely travel with family, he said, because they never want to go to the places I want. They can be quite burdensome! he said with a chuckle. Like the Church? I said. A deep laugh, a slap on the table; Exactly like the Church! I said: "In the past we had the Church, which meant, we had each other." Oh? And where is that from? Is that the new SCA slogan? I answered that it was from a Martin Scorcese movie, The Departed. Scorcese is that bastard who never won an Oscar, right? That's right, but he finally won for that movie. Ah, that's good. They keep screwing with that guy. He's a lapsed Catholic too, I said, but he followed by saying that he was not so much as lapsed as "willfully removed." Puzzled, I asked him if he was an excommunicate; he said, Relax, no queen in a fancy dress can make me leave the Church if he wanted. I left on my own accord.

He drank some of the wine, offered some more to me (to which I declined), and then proceeded with his story. The Black Christ of Maastricht, he said, was from Palestine; a nobleman who had fought in the Crusades, realizing he had not brought a gift for his youngest daughter, gave her a nut that had fallen among his belongings in the Holy Land. The grateful daughter planted it in the ground, and it eventually blossomed into a strong, sturdy tree. Then one night, a storm came; a bolt of lightning flashed down from Heaven and struck the tree, much to her sadness. But when the dust had settled, the daughter revealed that she had seen, in the middle of the tree, an image of the Crucified Lord. That was how the devotion started, he said; my family had been devotees for three generations before me, he said. For seven hundred years, that image of Christ has been revered, he said. I sat there listening to him recount, like a wide eyed child, this fascinating story. Then his eyes shifted, and he exclaimed aloud. The boyfriend had arrived.

What a vision, he whispered to me. The young eromenos was the type of boy every gay in my school went gaga over; tall (but not as tall as the Dutch man, who would be of average height in the Netherlands), sturdily built, but not overly muscular, lithe, nimble, with a square jaw, a dark tan, a swimmer's ass and legs. Notice the package? He said, with a wink. I tried not to get too embarrassed by his comments. He stood up and greeted the boy with a peck on the cheek, and introduced me to him. He's a fucking crazy Catholic too! he said, and the boy smiled at me, and asked if I had been to the Vatican. I answered that it was not in our itinerary this time, but maybe next year we might visit. I've been to Mass at St. Peter's countless times. The Holy Father is such an inspiring figure! His accent, I noticed, had a slight, almost imperceptible Midwest twang to it. We talked for one more hour, before I realized it was getting late, and that I had to go somewhere with the family in the morning. We said our goodbyes, and the boyfriend took a picture of us. Goodbye, they said, it was nice meeting you. I bade them goodbye and turned around, but not before seeing the older gentleman stroke the younger one's chin before biting it.

By the time I got back to Bruxelles Midi it was already dark. A Ukranian man offered to cross the street with me. We crossed the street together, and parted at the other end. I came back to Park Inn, exhausted, gratified, and a little puzzled; I drank a beer-- the only time I drank alcohol in my entire stay in Europe, believe it or not, and fell asleep.


Ecce Homo said...

Little women? Sounds cute!

This is a lovely story, mate. I just feel sorry for that gay guy who can't accept God's love and forgiveness. He must feel really ashamed of himself if he cannot bring himself to go to Confession anymore.

Beautiful young men are wonderful, but they can't make up for being at peace in your soul.

Anonymous said...

Is this a true story, or a fiction? Because it is wierder then fiction :D

Archistrategos said...

Anon: Yeah, it's true. I've always believed reality is stranger than fiction and I guess this is proof of it LOL

Ecce: I'm not really sure what happened to him, I didn't want to pry anymore as I thought it would have been rude. But he was nice, at least, and quite honest; I somehow get the feeling he's had a sort of "lover's quarrel" with the Church. Call me crazy, but that's what it sounded to me at least

Archistrategos said...

As an aside, I'd like to add: I don't think the young man was a "trad" in any sort of the way. Perhaps more culturally Catholic than most, but not really obsessed with theology. Also, the older gentleman was not as horny as I might have made it seem. =)

JD said...

This is a great story, and you've got a knack for telling it. I'm going to sleep now to dream of altar servers with swimmer's legs...I mean...