“The human mind is a fearful instrument of adaptation, and in nothing is this more clearly shown than in its mysterious powers of resilience, self-protection, and self-healing. Unless an event completely shatters the order of one’s life, the mind, if it has youth and health and time enough, accepts the inevitable and gets itself ready for the next happening like a grimly dutiful American tourist who, on arriving at a new town, looks around him, takes his bearings, and says, ‘Well, where do I go from here?’”
-Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward Angel
If I had one word to describe the experience of my first week in Belgium, it’d be: adaptation. The forward momentum of the travels and travails I’ve experienced thus far has done much to prevent me from becoming completely overwhelmed by the sensory overload that inevitably accompanies the arrival in a new country, thousands of miles removed from the familiar. By narrowly focusing on each individual task and objective, I was able to successfully navigate the way to my new my new home in Ghent. Each setback I came across warranted my undivided attention and every little victory warranted extant jubilation. In reflecting back on the time between when my plane touched down in Paris and the first day in Ghent, I would certainly emphasize the need for taking a more zen-like approach toward the travails of travel and resettlement.
I’ve endured the extreme time zone jump that comes with flying across the Atlantic several times now. The sense of miraculously jumping hours ahead in time has in the past left me disoriented and exhausted. I took a direct flight from JFK in New York that left at midnight and landed in Paris at about two in the afternoon. The flight was actually half the time of my time zone shift, and I’ve never been able to sleep on planes, so I already prepared myself for an incredibly long day, and hopefully an early night. I set a rather straightforward goal for my first day in Europe: make it to Ghent. All I had to do was navigate the labyrinthine Charles De Gaulle Airport, take three separate trains, and then navigate through the streets of unknown countries all the while carrying 90 pounds of luggage and an indecipherable New York accent. (As I’ve been told many times now by non-native English speakers I’ve come across.)
For the most part my trip from Paris to Ghent was surprisingly unremarkable. I’ve had more interesting train rides from Central New Jersey into New York City than I did traveling in a foreign country. But that tends to be a condition of most solo travel experiences. When I travel with friends, family, or anyone else really, the stimulus is naturally different. My travel memories from these experiences tend to focus on the content of our conversations, little squabbles over where to visit, the hangry hunt for where to eat, and so on. As a result this type of travel leads to an exploration just as much into the person you are traveling with as the place you are going. Removed from all that, stripped of the ability to openly communicate, and singularly focused on the destination more than the in-between, creates a much more reflective experience. In truth, the simplicity of my journey was in its own way revelatory, and essential to allowing for the self-exploration that only solo travel can provide.
Since this is supposed to be a blog about movies, I’d be remiss not to share with you my first moviegoing experience in Belgium. Considering the subject of this blog, you may expect that the first thing I would do after coming to a new city would to scope out the local theater. Yet this was very much a case of a theater finding me as opposed to the other way around. Still pumped with adrenaline after I settled into my temporary room in the student dorms, I decided to take a walk through the windy cobblestone streets. It’s an exciting feeling walking through places, which at once are familiar and unfamiliar, and no matter how magnificent, soon will recede into the backdrop of everyday life. Using nothing more than the little blue compass dot on my google map app, managed to find my way to the city’s iconic centre. I did a quick sweep through Korenmarkt and the outside of the many different attractions. With the second wind I was riding on, starting to fade, but reluctant to return to the sweaty student dorm just yet, I jacked the free wifi from a nearby McDonalds and checked my phone to see what was playing in the area.
I struggled with catching up on messages and a poor signal to the point that eventually I left and started walking toward the canals. However luck would have it that after walking less than 100 feet I stumbled past The Sphinx Cinema, a movie theater that has continuously screened films since 1912. It also turned out that in less than fifteen minutes a special screening of Lar’s Van Trier’s Dancer in the Dark (2000). One of the reasons I chose Ghent as the place to spend my Fulbright year was for its reputation for passionate moviegoing culture. That night I was not disappointed. There was barely a seat left in the near-sold out theater, which was filled with mostly teens and twenty-somethings talking excitedly and animatedly. One group of pranksters would from time to time start a round of applause and loudly whistle, which cause the rest of the theater to hush up for about thirty seconds or so, and then resume talking. This went on a few more times before two presenters responded to the latest round of applause and climbed on stage and proceeded to talk (in Flemish) for the next fifteen minutes about (from what I can gather) Van Trier, the Sphinx, and Kask Cinema (a theatre I will talk more about in later blogs). The students were attentive, responsive, and spirits were high.
After the introduction, the lights dimmed and all attention was turn toward the screen. I’ll refrain from spoilers here, but it can be safely said that this movie gives out a powerful emotion punch. That being said, regardless of the content, it can be difficult to keep an audience of young adults focused and engaged for an extended period of time, especially one would assume a two and a half hour art house film shot sparsely with grainy, shaky, digital footage. Yet I would have to say that this was perhaps the most attentive and engaged audience I have ever participated in. They all laughed voraciously at the rare moments of comedy or intentional camp and by the film’s resolution, I have never before heard so much open weeping, (yes, weeping is the only word I can use to describe it!). Shell shocked and numbed by the film’s disturbing resolution, the formerly energetic crowd quietly shuffled out of the theater and back into the street. I sat down at the café connected to the theater and had my first official Belgian beer. It was one of the strangest and most memorable moviegoing experiences I ever experienced, and I couldn’t think of a more fitting beginning to the coming year devoted to cinema and media studies.