Common spaces – Seven times outside

I must have been about fourteen or fifteen. A young teacher had suggested an excursion, one Saturday. We were boarders; normally we spent Monday morning to Friday evening at the boys’ boarding school. A couple of weeks earlier the same teacher had set off with a small group of boys who were a year above me. He had suggested a trip to a cave – no, not to the Caves of Han, not to a tourist cave; they had gone to a cave where you had to crawl, where you needed ropes and rope ladders to access shafts. I had been so disappointed that I couldn’t go, that I was not allowed to go that first time, and I didn’t think there would be a second chance. I thought the bigger boys would be allowed to go but that the young teacher would have long been reassigned by the time it was our turn, or that the school board would think one such trip was enough. But no, another sheet of paper appeared on the notice board announcing the trip. I put my name down immediately and one autumnal Saturday morning we set off in the dark-green Volkswagen bus to the Ardennes, an older priest driving, the young teacher sitting next to him. I can still see the motorway stretching ahead of us way before we got to Liège, a long descent and immediately after that a long climb. The cave we were to visit, the Trou Manto, is in Ben-Ahin near Huy, not that far from where I lived, but those Ardennes villages were so different from everything I knew, so different from where I lived. The Ardennes villages differed more from the village where I lived than my village differed from, let’s say, Brussels; that’s what I thought then and that’s what I think now, but I still can’t say why they are so different: not because the houses in my village were heated with oil, whereas in the Ardennes they burned wood; of course the Ardennes houses were built of dark-grey limestone with slate roofs, and in my village the houses were built of dark-red bricks with red clay roof tiles; of course in the Ardennes there are little rivers with rapids and worn-away valleys flanked by deciduous forests and spruce woods, and in my village it was flat, level and only Scots pines grew there; but the difference lay elsewhere. I often wonder if it is the difference between sandy and limy soil. There was no holding back: having arrived at our destination, we got changed pretty well immediately. Wear dirty clothes or overalls the notice had said and walking shoes or boots; but I didn’t have any walking shoes or boots, and so I wore a pair of ankle boots, but they had a thick heel, three or four centimetres high. They were partly orange-brown, partly dark-brown leather. I remember going to buy them, my mother and I, from the shoemaker’s son who had started a shoe shop. My shoes were the village variant of the glam rock boot – this was as far as a goody-goody child could go. My shoes were totally unsuitable for the caves: I felt ashamed of my shoes when we started getting changed. On the field trip the heels of my shoes got stuck behind the steel cable of the rope ladders and the soles were extremely slippery. My it-didn’t-matter-if-they-got-dirty clothes were a pair of jeans with wide legs and a yellow K-Way raincoat with a thick knitted pullover underneath. When I think back now, the cave was a small cave: low corridors, a shaft, a couple of little chambers. Throughout the day I was inquisitive and curious about what was to come and I was afraid: afraid that a stone would come loose from the ceiling, afraid that I would get stuck in the narrow corridor, unable to move forwards or backwards, afraid that I would slip, afraid that my comrades would slip, or that a stone would fall on them. Their shouts and laughter bothered me. I was wet and dirty and I was cold; the floor, the walls and the ceiling of the space pressed against my body, or perhaps it would be more exact to say that my body pressed against the floor, the walls and the ceiling of the space: I blew my body up until it touched the boundaries of the space, until it had become space. It is ridiculous to speak of walls, floor and ceiling: there was no distinction between walls, floor and ceiling: everything was made of the same material, worn away out of the limestone, lime which had deposited itself there and then dissolved, skeletons of animals and plants; my body became a part of them. We arrived at a shaft some ten metres deep, the young teacher positioned himself right in front of the shaft, having hung a little aluminium rope ladder from a hook. He knotted a couple of ropes to a ring and hung them round our waist and tied a rope to it. The rope was red. I will always remember that red rope with which he secured us. One by one the other boys went down. The old teacher went first. Down below, he untied the rope attached to the ring. Every time there were three boys down there, the young teacher pulled up the rope with the rings on it, so he could put them round the waist of the other boys. I was afraid and fascinated by the precision of that repetitive action in that organic space, while I waited for my turn. The small space, the young teacher, his command and skill and love and my fear converged. While I was going down, all I could think about was the rope ladder breaking. I was afraid I would let slip the wire ladder, that my hands would not be able to bear my own weight, afraid that the spokes of the steel cable would slide, afraid that the hook I had seen in the rock would come loose. Every time I placed my hand on a lower spoke I was convinced that it would slip away from me. I was afraid and it was marvellous, and it was not that it gave me a kick. It was a recognition of something I had never seen before. It was the first time in my life that I knew, that I realized, that a body needs space – not just any space; that a body looks for space, that a body looks for a space. I was quite sure that this applied not only to my body, but was something universal: that everyone needs spaces. Once out of that cave, I realized how much I had enjoyed it; I wanted to visit and explore more caves, but the possibility seemed remote. I couldn’t see how the opportunity we had had that day might come along again. On the way back to school in the Volkswagen bus, we all slept. I awoke with a jolt dozens of times, thinking I was falling.

In 1977 I was invited to join a group tour of Greece: Crete, the Peloponnese and Athens were on the programme. Sitting at a street café in Athens one morning, I heard that Elvis had died. For me Elvis was a fat crooner in a glitter suit, of no importance whatsoever, a farcical figure. I had studied architecture for a year and failed, but I had enjoyed the year of architectural history lectures from a lecturer who, years later, was run over on a cycling trip in France and found dead at the side of the road. In his lectures he talked at length about the Greek temples in general and the Acropolis in particular. We walked as a group from the place where we were staying to the Acropolis. I remember the tourist stalls along the way; they made me think of the little stalls in Scherpenheuvel, and I remember that the group leader had an argument at the ticket office, trying to get a better rate because there was a group of us. He made a great fuss and had the last word. There were a lot of people at that ticket office. Once on site, I tried to get away from the group as quickly as possible. From the beginning, from my first steps on site, so close to the building – actually there was no difference between the rock on which the building stood and the building; they were one – I was profoundly impressed, I was bowled over by the space and the city which became a landscape through the building. I tried hard to imagine the colours on the building, remembering that the enthusiastic lecturer had told us that originally it must have been like that, but I didn’t manage to construct that image in my head, not while I was standing there. It was the emptiness between the columns, the blue sky between the columns and the black interior of a small space that gave me goosebumps. They came in waves. It was as if I could make them come over me, again and again and at the same time it was as if they came over me without me having any influence at all. I cannot say that it was pleasant. I spent the rest of the day hanging around in the perfect ruin, in that perfect space. In the evening I couldn’t bring myself to speak to anyone. The desire to be in that building again, to go back there was too strong: craving, the sort of longing brought about by the kind of absence that only a child can feel. Thirty-seven years passed before I returned to Athens. When I step off the bus which takes me from the airport to the city I see the building on the rock in the distance, two cranes towering above it. I don’t go to the building immediately. I postpone the visit as long as possible, just as a child will leave a sweet lying in the cupboard, in anticipation. I try to stay as far away as possible from the building as I stroll round the city, the city ravaged by economic crisis. One sunny morning I finally walk to the Acropolis, the building shimmering in the sunlight, visible from afar. There are many more tourists than there were the previous time. Now they’re all equipped with digital cameras. Most hold them at arm’s length in front of them, and they make hideous movements with their fingers when they want to make the picture bigger or smaller or replace it with another image. They no longer need to ask other tourists to take a photograph of them against the building; everyone takes selfies, looking at each picture they have taken: themselves in front of the building. The building is being restored. Large slabs of dazzling white marble are being placed between weathered, yellowish slabs. There’s a couple of workers there, cutting and joining stones. Again I stay until the evening; again I spend a long time leaning against the columns; I look at the vase shape which appears in the negative space between the columns; I look into the black space I still can’t enter. But the waves of goosebumps don’t come. Not once. The building does nothing for me. Have I become insensitive with age? Or can I no longer see or feel the building through all those tourists? Or is the problem the bright white slabs that stick like plasters to the building and make it look more dilapidated than ever? Or is it because I can’t forget the refugees in the parks in Athens? Or the food being distributed by Golden Dawn? Or the thousands of empty shops? Perhaps I’m more moved by the vast emptiness of modern Athens than by the vast touristic perfection of the exquisite ruin.

In the summer of 1979 I hitchhiked to Barcelona. I had just one objective: to visit Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia. When looking at slides in history of art lessons or at photographs in books I had always felt that that building did nothing for me. I travelled there to be able, finally, to draw a line under it. I was absolutely convinced that caves, many more of which I had visited since that first experience in 1972, and in which I seemed to have found my natural environment, would make Gaudi’s building pale in comparison. It was evening when a Spanish truck driver set me down in Barcelona. He had first suggested we pay a visit to the whores, but I had declined the suggestion with a laugh. I walked round with my heavy rucksack till midnight before finally looking for a place among the bushes in a park where I could roll out my mat and sleeping bag. The park was close to the Sagrada Familia. I had already walked around the building and, as I had expected, the building didn’t move me: it was imposing, high, but I couldn’t seem to see beyond the artificiality of the details. I had just climbed into my sleeping bag when I was startled by a couple making love a few meters away; in the course of the night I was awoken three more times by other couples, who had all found their place close to where I had found mine. It must have been one of the first times I slept outdoors in a city. I remember a strong sense of the difference between the motorway and the city: the motorway is calm at night, the city nervous, perhaps neurotic. Next morning I was at the Sagrada Familia by the time it opened. I strolled around this perpetual building site. I looked at the drawings and maquettes exhibited there. I climbed up into one of the towers, higher and higher; I stood there looking through one of the openings in the building and I saw the building and the city through that unusual hole in one of the walls of the building and suddenly I had goosebumps from head to toe. They came in waves. It was the same sensation as at the Acropolis. And again it lasted a long time; difficult to say how long. It only went away when I turned round, when I left. I couldn’t contemplate an experiment: would the feeling come back if I returned to the place with that view? I didn’t feel like trying to find out if the current would be restored if I put the plug back into the socket. In the days that followed I visited Gaudi’s other buildings in Barcelona. They did nothing for me.

One Sunday morning in the autumn of 1983 I had taken the metro to the north of Manhattan. I was wearing a bright red jogging suit. The air was fresh, almost chilly, but it was sunny. A very fine mist hung over the city, but you could tell it would soon clear. There was barely anyone around on the streets, it is difficult to imagine how empty Manhattan can be. I skated from Uptown to Downtown in one straight line along the wide boulevards. There weren’t many cars. I had a magisterial feeling of going faster than the cars, knowing that I could fall and knowing that I wouldn’t fall: not there, not at that moment, in that extraordinary light. I stopped in front of the Seagram Building designed by Mies van der Rohe. I had already seen the building a couple of times during my long stay in Manhattan. I had looked at it carefully. Now, I seated myself on a little stone wall a long way from the building, close to the Avenue, just on the square that belongs to the building. There was nobody in the building or on the square. I sat with my head on my hands folded over my knees, my feet, in black basketball shoes, flat on the stone floor of the square. I looked across the square at the building. The city was reflected across the square in the space of the building, lined with reflective glass. I sat there in that ridiculous position, and suddenly the hairs on my arms were standing on end, goosebumps all over my body. As I remember, I sat there for at least an hour. Eventually, I left, and bought a bagel on the corner of Park Avenue and 48th Street.

I first visited Como in the summer of 1990. I drove into the city, almost passing the building for which I had come: the Casa del Fascio, the Fascists building, designed by Giuseppe Terragni. I parked the car a couple of streets away. We walked to the building, parts of it revealing themselves as we came closer; and suddenly I was standing on the square in front of the building. I looked at the façade, I saw the mountain landscape behind and through the building, I looked at the proportions of the façade wall, of the windows, of the shutters, of the panes. I sat down on the stone floor of the square in front of the building, I couldn’t possibly have gone on standing, my knees were giving way, I felt tremors all over my body, as with a sudden attack of fever; but I knew it wasn’t an attack of fever, I knew it had to do with that space – or was it my projection onto that space? The building was closed, we couldn’t get in that evening in the summer of 1990 and I really didn’t mind. I went on sitting on the square for a long time, I made a rectangular frame with my two thumbs and my two index fingers and looked at the building like that on the square, through the frame of my fingers, just as children do when they are pretending to take a photograph. I barely spoke, I couldn’t speak. Later on we walked round the building. The spasms seemed to subside. My wife asked why I was in such a bad mood, probably because I hadn’t spoken all evening.

In the spring of 1994 we drove out of Rome in an easterly direction. There were four of us in the car. The road leading out of the city made me think of a typical Belgian road, a ‘steenweg’. I don’t mean a ‘steenweg’ as we know them now, I am referring to the ‘steenweg’ I knew as a child, with ancient trees lining the sides of the road, with a ditch on either side of the road, with pebbles in the road surface: my grandparents talked about ‘the pebble’ when they talked about the ‘steenweg’. In the evening we sat on a wooden bench parallel to the road looking at the passing cars: the Roman highway, the Napoleonic road. Was it that memory that got me in the mood? I walked through the building, looked at maquettes. I read something in a guidebook knowing I wouldn’t remember it, I walked along the pools and the ponds at Villa Adriana, the villa of the Roman emperor Hadrian. I walked through the gardens, over the dry grass grazed bare by horses or goats, perhaps. I stood outside the building, outside the remains of the building, I saw the skimpy grass, the hard packed ground, the hills, higher than the building: the building doesn’t stand on the top of a hill, doesn’t dominate the landscape. I looked through the building, that is to say I knew the building, became aware of the building while I looked at the landscape. My whole body trembled, like it does when you have a high temperature, or when you feel very cold and you are exhausted. I wondered what was happening to me. It was not the building itself that made me tremble; it was the landscape, the external surroundings. But if the building had not been there, the landscape would not have had the same effect . Something of Flaubert’s ‘Je ne peux jouir de la nature que par ma fenêtre’ needs to be adjusted: what came over me was not enjoyment, more like a painful recognition. It was not the nature that affected me, but simply the outside space – the defined outside space, defined by the buildings erected there almost two thousand years earlier, but also defined by the animals and people wandering around; defined by the city of Tivoli – called Tibur at the time of Hadrian –, by the hills, by the flat, arid hard ground and the scanty grass, by the banal buildings on the hills. I looked at this, while I sensed the Villa Adriana behind me. And the window was not my window, not the window of my house – more our window, a common window, a window I had never even looked through, but just knew it was behind me. I was not overcome by the grandeur of the building, but by the realization that countless people had leaned against the building just like me, gazing at the immediate and distant surroundings from the pastoral gardens, from the outside spaces which belong to the building, which lie between the building and the surrounding houses on the mountain slopes. Perhaps this feeling was also to do with the buildings and the landscape having been there so long: the realization that their basic configuration had not changed in all that time. There was nothing exciting in that landscape, only a deep calmness. A hitherto unknown acceptance came over me there, and sent shivers down my spine.

In 2006 I went to Bucharest with former students to work on an inventory of the informal use of public space in that city; I have often worked with students on that sort of inventory. At that time the city had still not recovered from the Ceaușescu regime and was preparing for Romania to join the European Union, Orthodox religion was leaving its mark on the city, and all over the city large foreign investors were at work. Cities in transition have always opened themselves more easily through their public spaces than cities which haven’t much changed. We saw glue sniffers at the entrance to the metro, prostitutes on the ring road, homeless people in the underground corridors of the city’s heating system, gypsies who had built their shacks in the empty water reservoir or against hot water pipes above ground or who lived well hidden in squats. We went on systematic walks through the city, everyone with the same protocol, everyone collecting the same data. We knew these data were parameters to gain an understanding of public space. I have often studied informal gay meeting places. I think they are the most interesting public spaces, the most complex. In Bucharest, however, I didn’t find a single one in the ten days we spent working there. I felt as if I was losing my touch, my ability to read those sorts of spaces. But I could not imagine that they didn’t exist in Bucharest. The very last day of our stay I got up early to go and look at another part of the city where no one from our group had been. I walked to the area of the large halls where exhibitions and trade fairs are held. A couple of homeless people were sitting against a wall, drinking and smoking. I found them atypical of Bucharest: elsewhere in the city homeless people had been shy, suspicious and submissive, but here they sat or lay without anxiety or shame. They didn’t hide, they lay there as I had seen homeless people do in New York and in Paris, but not as I had seen them in the centre of Bucharest. Close to the halls, there is a small park with a funfair beside an artificial lake, where I saw parents and children holding hands, licking ice creams. The bright colours of the funfair contrasted sharply with the delicate green of the park. Children whined, mothers scolded. I crossed the eight-lane Soseava Kiseleff at the junction with the Boulevardul Expozitiei. I saw a bench I wanted to sit on. Right next to the bench was a rubbish bin and right next to that rubbish bin was a narrow path leading off the Soseava Kiseleff at right angles. I didn’t follow the path. I knew what the path was for and how it had come to be there, but I didn’t follow it, not yet. First I wanted absolute proof. I walked a little further along the wide road, twenty metres or so, to the next bench. There was a rubbish bin next to that bench, too, and another path leading off the road at right angles, going into the woods behind. A warm glow came over me, I was a hundred percent sure that I had found what I was looking for. I walked along the path, followed the winding line under the fresh greenery; the side path where I came out held no surprises for me, nor did the long concrete wall to which the path led, nor the countless condoms and the tissues on the ground. I recognized the surroundings as if I had been there often in my youth, and yet it was no homecoming. It was precisely the opposite: it was a return to a place where I went to get away from home. The warm glow that welled up in me when I found the place made way for a deep sense of ‘commonness’. There was nobody in the place so early in the day, but I experienced a deep and real wordless, language-less ‘conversation’ between those who went there, between those who ‘made’ the place by walking and standing where their desire brought them, driven by desire on the one hand and by shame on the other, and myself: I, who had never sought out places along the motorway for homosexual contact; I, who would not go back to that place in the evening, but I, who feel those places, who knows those places, the places you go to escape the oppressiveness of the house and to see in those places that you are not the only one who has a need. The constituent parts of that space were: a concrete wall to lean against, the noise of a road that soothes more than it disturbs, the screen, the safeguard of a few bushes, the traces of those who were there before you – the mud on the benches (they didn’t sit on the seat but on the back of the bench, with their feet on the seat, of course), their condoms, their dirty handkerchiefs, bottles of booze and cigarette stubs, the impression of their handprints and footprints against the concrete wall, like cave drawings, modern-day cave drawings.

from Dutch by Alison Mouthaan

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