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Why Ghent, specifically?

The trip there was pretty interesting… I first had to fly there via Dubai where I got to buy coffee at four times the price I pay at home, and then fly onto Brussels. On my flight to Dubai, I got hit on by a drunken blonde lady, less than 5 feet tall, but what she lacked in height, she made up for in attitude, and none of it was pleasant. Drunken phone dropping, bag misplacing, thinly veiled racial slurs, stumbling around in sharp heels like she was trying to break her ankles and take off by flapping her arm at the same time. It was glorious. Needless to say, I helped order her extra vodka and orange, and then sat back and watched the carnage. It was like a tiny, chunky King Kong stumbling through New York clutching a dinky vodka bottle. Take the good times when you can, that’s what I say!

I finally landed in Brussels, got the train through to St Pieters in Ghent (Sometimes spelled Gand, because spelling something one way is far too obvious) and caught a taxi to the apartment because it’s in a new area of Ghent I’ve never been to before. My taxi driver was a tall Moroccan lady, who waxed lyrical about us friendly Africans (even though she took some time to come around to the fact I was white AND African) and we had a great chat about the dangers of living with your parents and how absent fathers are a unique kind of loser. She also promised to buy my book!

Arriving, however, was like coming home. I remember some things from my very first trip, fifteen years ago. I remember walking into a café and it was run by two people. It was the kind of café that would have at least four waiting staff and two people on the till, and someone helping with the coffees back at home. Indigent waiters loitering on the periphery of your vision like Thai hookers, hoping fervently you were never going to pick them.

In Ghent, two people handled it, and handled it with aplomb. This is where I was first struck with the efficiency of the small city. People getting stuck into their tasks like they actually wanted to do it. From self-service checkouts to minimally manned stores, to student shop -assistants giving their all as though they actually cared about what they were selling, as opposed to haunting a store in the hopes that the customers catch what could kill them and then make a purchase before they die.

So, the architecture and the basic air of efficiency… that’s why. How the people have adapted to their environment, as they settle amongst the ruins of their forefathers.

I also remember an interesting thought I’d had about the houses; they fit into cracks that houses shouldn’t belong in, alongside alleyways so tight you need to hold your breath as you squeeze through them. Somehow, cranes are still able to build in these spaces, furniture gets lifted up the front of buildings, and construction work happens like it was done by an industrious ant colony, glorious, with an appreciation of history and enormously efficient, who stroll around casually in orange and reflective silver vests and hard hats, sipping coffee and eating the occasional pastry.

Amidst all of this, lies the small history. Now, the big history I have already touched on, but it’s the small history that excites me. Sint Baafs, St Pieters, enormous cathedrals reminding us of the great lengths the catholic church would go through to shock and awe the basic medieval peasantry. The art museum. The forts, castle walls, towers, statues and squares. These are the big history, and they dominate the walking landscape as much as Table Mountain mothers over Cape Town, or one of the world’s best art deco collections of buildings that twine through Durban like a classy neon boa, that makes you glitter under disco lights. Obliviously I like the big history, because I love history, but I absolutely LOVE the small history. The street names celebrating people who did great things for the city, but now they’re dead and forgotten, never to be remembered again outside of a children’s school textbook. Or a plaque on the side of a building commemorating the people who lived there and built a life that is no more.

A tiny archway in a park, commemorating the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo. A plaque acknowledging the home of Edith Cavell, a nurse murdered by the Germans in World War one, for treating German and British soldiers alike. BnB’s in 200-year-old houses that were built atop stone walls almost a thousand years old. I can feel the ghosts whispering past me in their out-of-date clothing, wondering what the hell happened to fashion, and how can they get a modern pair of shoes, because those look really comfy.

There are a lot of students in Ghent and they lend it an air of bright-eyed enthusiasm and a hankering for the next party. I remember getting fed a carbonara pasta in a giant bowl by two young guys, because students eat a lot and if you’re going to sell them a bowl of pasta, it better be a big one.

In some ways, Ghent has changed over the years. On my annual visits, I have noticed shops opening and closing. I have noticed less tiny coffee or pastry shops and more chain stores, because the bigger ones have the financial umbrella to weather the credit storms. There are more beggars now, something I’m acutely aware of, being South African – don’t forget, half of my country is unemployed and something like 5 million people pay taxes for 60 million. Beggars, vagrants, rubbish diggers, loitering criminals, we have them all, and they seem to proliferate like they’re our highest form of production, which, of course, is sad and a total indictment on our failure of a government, who are literally failing at every single metric a government can, from corruption to nepotism to inefficiency.

Nevertheless, Ghent is nothing like South Africa, but my uniquely South African ability to pick a beggar out of a street line-up as skillfully as a Master Chef judge squeezes pretention out of a piece of toast someone’s grandma cooked, is ever present. There are now more beggars in Ghent than there were 15 years ago, and it seems to be getting worse every year.

To say I am awfully excited to walk the cobbled streets of Ghent again, with a hot stroop waffle in my hand, whilst snow coats the streetscape in Christmas white, is somewhat of an understatement.

Also, training was excellent. The Germans are keeping healthy and Hale and Mario are doing well. Griet is back training too – she is such a lovely human being, it was great reconnecting with her. Thanks to Didier, who also popped in for a bit, even if it was a bit weird for me being the youngest person on the mat!

The Iai scroll is loads of fun! Patterns of drawing the sword in various movements, ultimately equipping me to draw, cut and escape in a range of scenarios. Also, it’s very meditative, and (even though this makes it all the more challenging), it is very rewarding – in truth, the most fun I’ve had with a sword since I first saw Conan the Barbarian!

Also, Yari… talk about a weapon of mass destruction. The spear (as any history buff will tell you) was responsible for more people not making it home from the battlefield than any other melee weapon. It’s also physically demanding, requires some precision and all in all, it’s an amazing challenge. I’m enjoying it profoundly, if failing at it miserably! However, I have some time to get it better, and I am sure I will.

Naturally my friends, my training, and the city itself lent itself to a magical time. A culinary, visual, and physical banquet of European city life in winter, an ideal backdrop and absolute wealth of inspiration to weave into both the heartfelt and action-packed scenes in the current book series (check it out!)

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