Embodied Belgium


Many Belgians, I’m told, dispute the proposition that Belgium makes sense as a single entity, and argue that the country should be carved up. Last week, Rachel and I visited friends in Mechelen, who also took us on day trips to Ghent and Antwerp. But even though we were in Rubens country, the more southerly spirit of Brueghel was never too far away, either. Five days and three cities don’t give me much of a basis for generalization, so I’ll just say I was impressed by a seeming obsession with bodies and embodiment, which I found evidence for almost everywhere I looked.

Marc and the puffer fish

We learned words that are as fun to roll on the tongue as the things they denote: geuze, kriek, oud bruin, kroketten, moules-frites, gehaktbal, waterzooi.


Our hosts told us that event planning in Belgium begins with a consideration of where the planners will go to eat after the event is over. An intense focus on good food and drink, they add, is one of the very few things that unite the Flemish and the Walloons.

Renaissance paintings, St. Paul's, Antwerp

On Antwerp’s street of prostitutes under glass, most of the Johns looked like me: older, grizzled men exuding a strained bonhomie. The display of nearly naked flesh was at once troubling and refreshingly honest. Here, in a city that was once the richest in the world, commodification is taken to its logical extreme.

Entrepot du Congo

We were reminded of other bodies put to more horrific uses, whether in the Belgian Congo by the genocidal King Leopold,

Holocaust Museum in Mechellen

or right here in Belgium, by the Nazis and their collaborators, who warehoused Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, intellectuals and other undesirables in an old castle in Mechelen until there were enough to ship off to the death camps.

left-hand path, Antwerp cathedral

As the carvings above the entrance to the cathedral in Antwerp make clear, the wholesale extermination of enemies has been an obsession of Europeans for a very long time.

angel of dismemberment

An angel of dismemberment presides over the wounds of God.


We saw representations of bodies everywhere we looked: bodies with both classical and grotesque physiques alike, the classical sometimes multiplied to a grotesque degree.

nose horn

On the roof of a mansion, a stone figure plays its grotesquely extended nose like a horn.

street-corner statue, Mechelen

Statues of mythic figures decorate many street-corners, some religious,

building figurehead

some secular,

Ghent street crow 1

some ornithological.

Antwerp guild halls

The guild halls of Antwerp are crowned with gilded figures—

cathedral of meat

except for the Butcher’s Hall, which rivals the cathedral in height and was meant to evoke the stacks of meat sold inside.


The cumulative effect of all these bodies is a kind of carnival atmosphere — a carnival cut loose from its religious and agricultural moorings, so that it now never truly ends.

Antwerp street cow

Which is probably just how a Medieval or Renaissance peasant would understand modern consumer culture, if they could come visit us in a time machine.

Jan Breydel Straat

But we who cross time zones in a few hours are the only time travelers. And the cities reinvent their pasts and present to make us comfortable.

tourist boat

There are signs in English for Belgian chocolate, Belgian waffles, Belgian beer. The tourist is a traveler who will pay anything to avoid surprises.

Mechelen train station

And as they do almost everywhere these days, less desirable travelers may make places of transit their habitation, squatting like marginalia in a 14th-century manuscript beside and beneath our illuminated texts,


sleeping in the gutter.

Antwerp giant

The past we prefer to see is dotted with castles and peopled with well-hung giants,


even when they occupy the very point of embarkation for thousands of forgotten war refugees.


Every Elm Street has its nightmares,

Ghent street crow 2

just as any bird can be an ill omen to one who believes in omens.

piggy banks

But remember: We never stop smiling under the skin.

Quentin Metsys memorial

In Antwerp, I photograph a skull on the side of a church — a memorial to an artist in a city that seems very proud of its art.

Dead Skull mosaic

Two hours later, the same carving appears in a plaza, enlarged 1000 times, facing the sky.

Dead Skull

The reasoning behind this is all a little too high-concept for my taste.

Garden of the Poets 2

But then, I’m a poet. Antwerp’s botanical garden, recently remade into a Garden of Poets, is more my kind of thing.

Garden of the Poets 1

To me, all bodies are grotesque — as infinitely variable as evolution will allow.

the stool of the poets

The Stool of Poets has four legs, ensuring that it won’t tip — but it will nearly always wobble.

three in one

The doctrine of the Trinity, by contrast, has proven notoriously unstable.

Antwerp landscape

We climb high enough to see how the city feeds on its land and water, where it discharges its waste,


and we descend to consume still more food and beer

De Koninck

under the sign of the severed hand, Antwerp’s traditional emblem.


But we leave to the local youth the task of painting the town red.

See the full album of 85 photos from Belgium on Flickr.

9 Replies to “Embodied Belgium”

  1. “The tourist is a traveler who will pay anything to avoid surprises.” Yes! Often, the more one pays, the less one sees. When I traveled as a student, I was single and relatively broke. I saw a great deal of England that way twice.

    Here, I saw a great deal. Which just proves my point.

    1. How did you guess that we were relatively broke travelers? :) Actually I’d say the reason why we were able to see so much in such a short time is entirely down to the knowledge and generosity of our hosts, Marc and Katrijn, who were excellent tour guides in all three cities.

    2. (And by “here” I mean this post. I’ve never been to Belgium, and after seeing your pics, I have a clearer idea of things I’d like to see.)

    1. Hee! Didn’t think of that misreading. Perhaps I just didn’t have enough to drink. (The official symbol of Mechelen, home to Carolus beers, is a drunken fireman who mistook moonlight in a church window for a fire, and tried to put it out. That’s him on the glass and bottle, but versions appear all over the city as well.)

  2. With Blaise Cendrars’ vividly illustrated Trans-Siberian travelogue much in mind at present, this wonderful pairing of words & images has a particular resonance.

  3. Great photos and travel notes, a new and interesting slant on Belgium. If I’m ever there again (only been to Antwerp once) I’ll pay more attention. The moules & frites & beer were too distracting.

    1. Yes, they do food and beer very well, don’t they? A paradise for brew-geeks and gourmets. On our last day, our hosts provided a cheese board sourced entirely from Belgium. Rachel, who knows her cheeses, was very impressed.

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