Antwerp has always had a soporific effect on me. Or, at least, it has mostly rather dreary associations for me.
For almost a year I had to change trains at Antwerp Central Station, sometimes as often as 6 times a week, and almost always with nearly an hour-long wait between trains. So I got used to hanging out there, eating too many snacks just to stay awake, resting on what must be the world’s longest wooden bench along the outer wall of the station, and strolling mindlessly through the subterranean jewelry-store arcade (the station is next to the Jewish quarter and the diamond centre). The station architecture glorifies the hey-day of Belgian colonial power, in whose time it was built. Until recently it was very much a “terminus” station – all the tracks ending there. Continuing journeys had to go out the same way they came in. (“Why would anyone not want to get off and spend a day – or a lifetime! – in splendid Antwerp?” you can hear the design-team thinking.) But now a massive trench/tunnel has been built right under the station to allow brief stops for the numerous international trains passing through.
As I said, I’ve spent a lot of time there, mostly over-tired and wanting to be somewhere else. Once, because of a late train from Oostende, I missed the last connecting train to Amsterdam and had to spend the night in a cheap hotel down the street. As the night clerk slid the key across the counter he said, “I’m afraid it’s too late to call the girls out.” Being my typically over-polite self, and too tired to think straight anyway, I cheerily commiserated with him, “Oh, that’s too bad…”. I was still pondering the odd dialogue as I turned the key in my door, when suddenly my brain caught up and made sense of it. I was glad I had already removed my clergy collar.
Actually, if I were not a clergyman I would probably never get to Antwerp. But as it is, I’m there every year for something we call “synod”. Kind of the Church of England’s practice run on purgatory. Three numb days at a conference centre that looks like it was imported from Stalingrad in the 1960’s, white-coated cafeteria workers and all. We trudge to meeting after meeting, held in rooms with shiny linoleum floors and bare concrete pillars. At night, because most of us aren’t accustomed to sleeping in hammocks, we take the mattresses off our beds and put them on the floor instead. Being church people we gather regularly for a form of prayer adapted from Peter, James, and John’s experience in the Garden of Gethsemane. Think 3:00 a.m. on an intercontinental flight, minus the u-shaped neck pillows, and you get some idea.
No, I’m kidding; it’s not that bad. Really. And besides, I’m one who believes, with Jesus, that “The Conference was made for Man, not Man for the Conference.” I feel no guilt in succumbing entirely, skipping a session here and there, getting caught up on my sleep. One year I took the first evening off and went out with my friend Bruce to try a wonderful assortment of local Belgian beers. That led to quite an extensive catching-up on sleep.
Tomorrow I head off again on my annual pilgrimage to hazy Antwerp. I’m hoping Bruce makes it too.
(For a decidedly less sleepy impression of Antwerp Central Station, click here.)