Considering Bruges is less than an hour train ride from Ghent, it was inevitable that curiosity would bring me here. If you haven’t seen In Bruges (2008) by Martin McDonagh (A Behanding in Spokane, Seven Psychopaths), then switch over to Netflix immediately for the best decision you’ll make all week. Earlier this week I participated on a short panel presentation with several of my Fulbright colleagues at a small high school in the Flanders countryside. To break the ice we asked the students who ranged between 14 and 17, to describe some of their favorite American stereotypes. The response was fairly atypical of European impressions of the United States: a nation of boisterous trigger happy gun owners, who eat too much junk food, have too low a tolerance for alcohol, that worship athletes and are insensitive to other cultures. (That last part further exacerbated by the absurdity of this current election cycle.) After receiving such a rough reflection of my country, we followed up our question with where they got their ideas about America from. The students’ answer: “the movies!”
However such cultural stereotypes exist inside a two-way mirror. Prior to the process of applying for my Fulbright application, I knew very little about Belgium, and couldn’t say that I could draw any major cultural assumptions beyond the nation’s supposed fondness fries and mayo, chocolate, and strong beer. Aside from that, I would have to say that majority of my assumptions about Belgium came from In Bruges.
The film’s depiction of Belgian cities as being both beautiful and boring, filled with stoic Northern Europeans and the occasional abrasive American tourists, was certainly not what I expected, but nonetheless such impressions are hard to take away until you experience a place for itself. One of the first things I did after I got into Bruges was to climb the city’s iconic Belfry Tower, which is also featured quite prominently in the film. Of course there’s one scene I couldn’t help but play over in my head the entire time I traversed up the winding narrow stairs to the top of the tower:
McDonagh’s critical view of America is apparent throughout the film, yet this also scene indicates the tongue and cheek way in which Europeans have constructed their ideas of the stereotypical American tourist. (Note the obvious Irish accent of the gentleman in the Yankees cap). Of course the Belfry was nothing like its depiction in the film, and it should be noted that an elevator would have allowed for less physically fit visitors to enjoy a caged off view of the top just the same as anybody else. The view was well worth it though, as it gave me a greater appreciation for an immaculately kept medieval city, that at least in the city square was vibrantly alive for a Sunday afternoon.
I was equally impressed by Bruges’ “alcoves.” I spent the better part of the next hour and half wandering through cobblestone streets, all the while following bridges and canals and windmills and of course watching out for the swans. Between experiencing the unseasonable warmth of the enduring Indian Summer, the rendering from street musicians, along with the cri de coeur of marketeers, I was exceedingly enchanted.
I also need to give honorable mention to Torture Museum Oude Steen for showcasing by far some of the creepiest wax figures I’ve ever seen. Considering the amount of graphic violence featured In Bruges, I would expect nothing short of coming across something this macabre during my visit. Perhaps our hapless assassins would’ve have had a much different impression of the city if they had made a detour here. I don’t really have much in the way of commentary on the interpretation of the exhibit design, the pictures below speak for themselves. From being welcomed by Vlad the Impaler holding a head on a pike to hearing muffled screams and steam whistle from a brazen bull as you leave, it is truly a museum experience unlike any other.
I’ll wrap up by keeping a promise to plug what was by far the highlight of my weekend in Bruges. After climbing towers, miles of walking, and witnessing wax figures endure the unspeakable, my flatmate and I decided that a stiff Belgian drink was well in order. Being constantly reminded that the uncharacteristic weather was bound to change any day (which at the time of writing this entry, it certainly has), we decided to enjoy the activity of the outdoor square. In a perfect example of how Americans can sense each other out no matter where they are, we could not help but overhear the familiar pronunciation patterns of our countrymen (well actually women). They were joined by a young Belgian man who had taken it upon himself to give them an insiders tour through one of the most touristy cities in the country. After exchanging a few stories they told us they were going to take part in The Legends of Bruges Walking Tour
We decided to join in and were given a fascinating tour which more or less led us to retrace most of our wanderings throughout the day. Aside from a few dirty looks from out the windows of apartment dwellers, not pleased with a late night narration outside their homes, we were given a pleasant series of ghost stories and insights into 15th century dating life. One anecdote credits Bruges native Jan Van Eyck as the inventor of a proto-Tinder type dating service. According to our guide he offered to paint portraits of royal officials and then travel to the court of their prospective paramour and paint their portrait as well. After the pictures were swapped (which took anywhere between five months and two years), each would decide on whether or not they were a match for the other. A great insight into how human nature doesn’t change, just the technology.
So regarding shallow assumptions, whether perpetuated by movies or portraits or dating apps, they are typically become undone almost immediately by experiencing the place or person firsthand. Although has my visit to Bruges diminished my enthusiasm for the film? Quite the opposite, I feel no sense of betrayal in the mismatch between expectation and reality. I can enjoy McDonagh’s assumptions about Belgium for their underlying truth and obvious inaccuracies, as much as I can relish in the fun-house mirror perception some Europeans may have about myself and my country.