I’ve done this short series that I called “Cities in silence”. It’s the silence of cities devoid of people, withdrawn, turned towards themselves. There is a certain nostalgic beauty to it. The last in this series is Brussels.
This is the place where it can rain for a whole week and winter winds chill you to the bone. It’s the place where – depending on your mood – local administration and politics can either make you laugh hysterically or drive you crazy with its absurdity.
But it is also the place where you can meet people from all over the world. Where you sit on ancient oak benches and savor a Trappist beer, produced by the monks themselves. Where you can watch the night sky laying down on the pavement of Grand Place, the central city square, around which the whole city developed through centuries. Where you can discover little bits of the old city in unexpected places.
These places have known plague, war, famine and despair. They have known joy, endless evenings on the terraces, couples making out, groups of friends celebrating something, doesn’t matter what, people walking alone with the wind in their hair.
The crowds will eventually return. The students, the rich, the tourists, the loners, the freaks, the drunk and the lovers will cross each other again along these old streets.
For now, the city still lives its silent life. Still breaths its hidden breathing. Barely moving but alive. I can hear its breathing beneath medieval pavement stones and rundown building fronts.
You can also read the other two posts in this series, about Paris and Lisbon.
We usually talk of dead ends metaphorically. What we mean is that something didn’t work out. We feel we cannot continue along a certain path. But sometimes dead ends are real endpoints – there is nothing beyond them and we cannot turn back either. And while there may be warnings along the way, there’s no gradual build-up to this moment, no preparation and no obvious red flag.
A few years ago, during a visit to my home country, I took a day trip in the mountains. It was a sunny and cold January morning. I caught a very early train, then the first cable car going up. Around 9:30 I was already on the high plateau, enjoying the view all around me. Snowy valleys to the left and the right. Silence. Hardly anybody else around, for as far as I could see.
I wandered around for a while with no plan, freezing but happy. When I realized that it’s getting late and I have a train to catch, I chose one trail that was supposed to take me to the train station in about 4 hours.
As I discovered soon enough, this trail was closed during the winter. I passed by several warning signs, thinking whether to go up all the way back and take another path. Each time, I decided to go on. It was less a matter of careful reasoning as much as a combination of overconfidence, unwillingness to go all the way back up, and sheer inertia.
At first, the hike was pleasant. The snow was frozen, which helped me advance faster. On the steeper areas, I could follow the trail created by previous climbers and step on the shoe marks dug in the snow. I took out my camera. I was at ease. From time to time, the trail opened up to reveal the whole valley and the huge drop separating me from the villages below.
But then the shoe marks disappeared. I could only follow the trail by the trail signs and posts, and they were few and far in between. I was descending in zigzag on a steep slope that was almost never exposed to the sun, and thus the snow was frozen solid.
For a while, I could still advance slowly, making sure each foot is firmly in place before I move the other. Then it all grinded to a halt. I could not go forward because the slope was too steep, and I couldn’t go back because the simple gesture of turning around could have broken my unstable balance.
Ahead of me lied a portion of 30 meters or so with no trees, no bushes, no rocks, nothing to hold on to. All of a sudden, I looked around me and I felt like walking on a tight rope above the abyss. Clinging to a slope that got steeper without me realizing it. The slope was opening, to my right, into a straight drop into the valley.
Seen from the outside, there are several possible exits from such a situation. I could have walked backwards, retracing my steps in the snow. I could have searched in my backpack for something I could use to dig in the snow. But our brain works differently under stress. It’s not that I could not envisage all these possibilities. It’s that they seemed irrelevant to me. There was only one thing I felt I needed to do: to cross the 30 meters of ice in front of me and reach the tree on the other side.
And so I did – otherwise I won’t be here writing this. But they were the most labour-intensive 30 meters that I ever walked. I dug and clawed my way forward, not knowing if I’ll be able to keep my balance on the next step. Before placing each step, I had to hit a dozen times in the frozen snow in order to dig a small indentation that could support my weight. It wasn’t the digging that took most of my energy; it was trying to control the trembling of my legs, so I don’t lose my grip.
Although I was fully immersed in digging my way forward, somewhere at the back of my mind I kept on watching myself as if from the outside. I thought about the stupidity of dying on the mountain, after having bypassed so many warnings. One more metal cross on these lonely slopes. I was not sad. There was something slightly amused and ironic in how I regarded myself: “So that’s how it happens.”
The whole thing did not take more than 20-25 minutes, but it felt like forever. I got to the tree on the other side and I held on to it as you would with somebody who pulled you out of the water when you were about to drown. The rest of the descent was uneventful. I got to the train station in time. In a few hours, I was back in my hotel room, seemingly far away from the cold and the drama.
Up there, I was close to facing a real dead end. And this made me think, later on, about how the world would have looked like without me. The simple answer is that it would have looked exactly the same. The sun would have risen just the same, the people would have gone on about their lives just the same. Everything I was doing or planning to do – the earth would have kept on spinning without it.
Back then, this realization used to fill me with sadness and discouragement, as if it showed my own insignificance. I saw what happened as being about me, my life, my impact on the world. We all have a hungry and demanding ego.
Now I tend to see it as a liberation. Like lifting a burden from my shoulders. What a relief that the world does not depend on any of us. We can simply continue doing what we are doing for the sake of it, for the pleasure of it. The change it may bring is for us to try but, ultimately, not for us to decide.
Home is a state of mind. I’ve never lived in Lisbon but everytime I go there I feel like I belong.
Maybe it’s the light. There’s a special quality to the light of this city. The way it gently embraces everything. The lightness and openness it creates. I miss waiting for sunrise somewhere in Alfama, as the locals slowly start going about their day around me.
Maybe it’s the people. From my first visit, I felt this easiness of relating to people on the street. Like going back to the place where I was born and wandering around. Nobody would know me after all this time, but I would still feel at home. Strangely enough, I feel the same here.
Or maybe it’s the narrow back streets of old Lisbon. The calm joy of a summer afternoon, when everything seems deserted but, if you stop and listen, you will hear the humming of life all around.
Paris wasn’t love at first sight for me. There was something about it a bit too imperial and well-to-do for my taste. I felt it was lacking humility.
But I learned to love its silences, shadows, and hidden beauty during long walks. Without the usual tourist crowds, this subtle beauty of abandonment and ruin became even more visible.
Abandonment and decay reveal the vulnerability of things, just as they reveal the vulnerability of people. I don’t take any pleasure in seeing the pain that comes from vulnerability, but there is something honest and raw in showing your wrinkles and bruises.
I woke up suddenly in the dark. Somebody had just called my name. Was I dreaming?
A long time ago, when I was living at my grandma’s and I couldn’t sleep, I used to listen to the noises coming from the attic. Mice looking for food. I knew that, but I couldn’t help imagining other things going on at night. Things that materialized when the conditions were right and began manifesting themselves in the world. Things that were not exactly alive but could make themselves felt among the living.
All those stepping noises, all that creaking, all those corn cobs rolling on the floor like heavy cylinders. I was lying back and staring at the ceiling, trying to convince myself that it’s all coming from mice. Under the thick blanket, I didn’t move, I didn’t make a sound. I just waited for it to stop.
Sometimes I felt brave enough to climb the stairs leading into the attic during the day. Even then, the strangeness and fear didn’t leave me. The attic was full of things from the past, from newspapers and books to wooden household items. The way light traveled through the attic was also strange. Some parts were heavily lighted, but most of it remained in the dark. There seemed to be no in-between.
I never knew when these ghosts would decide to manifest themselves. Several nights could pass in relative silence. Then, all of a sudden, the whole attic would come alive in the dark.
I am lying awake, staring at the ceiling. I haven’t seen that attic in a long, long time, but somehow I didn’t really leave it behind. I carry it around, above my head. Those undead things making weird noises may have changed, and new ones may have appeared. Lost love, rejection, isolation, sadness, vulnerability, shame, guilt. They still live upstairs. Sometimes they decide to throw a party. And I still feel like clutching under the blanket and not moving until it all goes away.
Over time, I’ve grown to know these ghosts. To recognize their presence, even when I cannot look directly at them. To call them by their name. Sometimes, to challenge them and invite them in. To climb the stairs to the attic and stay there, in the narrow spotlight under the windowpane, surrounded by darkness.
I listen to the monotonous sound of the rain. Straight above me, a single, narrow line of blueish light extends across the ceiling. It points out towards darkness, like a sword drawn out to protect against an invisible enemy.
Tonight, the ghosts are sleeping. I can hear their heavy breathing underneath the rain.
I was bullied in primary school by a boy who seemed to really enjoy controlling and humiliating people. I wonder now what his life might have been at home. Did he witness abuse? Was he abused? We find it difficult to believe that kids can be cruel for no particular reason.
A few years later, I turned into a bully myself. It happened one time and there was no physical abuse, just words.
“Just words” – how sadly ironic. I was deeply wounded by words so many times since then.
There was this girl in my class, very shy, always pulling down her blouse as if she needed to cover something shameful. Something invisible that could never be fully covered. She spoke with difficulty. When she did speak, she sounded like a girl much younger than her age. She was never at ease among us.
I don’t know how it came to be but I started making fun of her. Of her speech difficulties. Of her habit of pulling down her blouse. At some point, her mom came to the school and talked to me. She wasn’t aggressive. She asked me why I did it.
I don’t think I was doing very well at the time. I felt lonely, out of place, clumsy, inadequate. I felt unloved. I desperately wanted to be accepted.
I was probably scared too, because I couldn’t make sense of what was happening to me.
Every time I remember that girl, there’s a wave of shame and self-contempt washing over me. It seems inconceivable. I never saw myself as a jerk preying on people’s difficulties but for her I surely was one, back then.
Was it the same for my bully from primary school? Was he, above all else, a scared boy hiding from the monsters under his bed? It’s almost impossible to think about him that way, but I simply have to admit the possibility. No matter how outrageous it feels to compare myself with him, I have to at least envisage the possibility that I once was, in somebody’s eyes, exactly what he was for me.
There is something liberating in accepting this possibility. I doubt there can be self-forgiveness or acceptance as long as we remain in the cocoon of our own suffering, disconnected from the suffering of those who were hurt by us.
The same facts can be the subject of different stories. It matters what story we choose to tell.
You may think that stories and storytelling are not your thing, but I am not talking about fairy tales. There are many kinds of stories. What do you tell yourself when things don’t work out the way you wanted, despite your best efforts? Is it about you being a failure? Is it about blaming others? Is it about feeling incapable and helpless? Well, this is also part a story. Maybe the most important story there is.
What is the narrative that we keep on telling ourselves (and the world)? Is it a story of helplessness or one of empowerment? One of fear and denial, or one of acceptance?
Are we even aware of the story we are telling? It may be difficult to cut through the smoke of self-deception and wishful thinking.
Self-narratives influence the way we perceive ourselves and the world. They can lift or undermine us. We can become their prisoners, despite having created them. They become so ingrained and normalized that we have a hard time recognizing them for what they are: products, artifacts. Something that was made and can be unmade.
Take Rashomon, the 1950 film by Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. The movie focuses on telling and retelling the same event (the murder of a samurai) from different perspectives. The storytellers are a bandit, the samurai’s wife, and other accidental witnesses.
What is interesting about this is not simply the presence of different narratives, but the fact that these narratives can be wildly different. Sometimes overlapping, sometimes contradicting themselves. They highlight the personal circumstances and interests of each storyteller. The bandit does not deny killing the samurai, but claims it happened during a duel over the samurai’s wife. The wife tells everybody she has been raped by the bandit. One of the witnesses, a woodcutter, contradicts both the bandit and the samurai’s wife. However, his story has its own shadows and inconsistencies.
Everyone is a suspect. And everyone has their own story.
The presence of alternative stories does not imply relativism. It simply shows that there is more than one possible way of looking at what happens. It reminds us that stories do not offer accurate descriptions of facts, but interpretations and assumptions about those facts.
In fact, the possibility of having alternative stories is liberating. Both as individuals and as communities, we can question our received stories and we can modify or replace them.
There may be things from our childhood that crystalized themselves, long ago, into a story we kept on telling ourselves. Maybe it’s a story about not being loved. Maybe it’s about being somehow defective. Obviously, the story is rooted in things that happened back then. But there is nothing inevitable or necessary about this particular story.
As long as we keep on telling ourselves the same story, we will continue to behave as if the story were true. The possibility of change appears as soon as we start taking distance from our default narrative and recognize it as a story, not a necessary state of fact.
This is, after all, what different forms of therapy try to do. This is also how most people heal, with or without external help. It all starts with taking distance from what seems to be written in stone and recognizing that it is us doing the writing.
The path is narrowing down. It’s getting late. I lie down among the flowers and the shadows. Waiting for the dark to set in.
Just before sunset, there is this brief moment of clarity and intensity. The colors become more vivid, the sounds of the forest grow louder. Everything is alive, fresh, and crisp.
The wind picks up from time to time. The tree crowns above me are dancing a weird dance.
We’re often afraid of anything that could dissolve our sense of being a separate ego. But right here, the borders and delimitations fade away. I let myself dissolve in the scene. Everything I could possibly say is already said, much clearer, by my surroundings.
My ego cannot really add to this perfect dance. So I blend in like a nocturnal animal.
The high tide has covered almost the entire beach. Strips of sand are showing up here and there, surrounded by shallow water. I walk across shades of blue.
With each minute, the shades grow a bit darker. It’s late afternoon, but it feels like evening. Only a few people are left on the beach, and they are rushing to get back to their cars. Soon it will be all deserted.
I watch the storm clouds approaching. There’s something hypnotic about the way they move. Incredibly soft, like jellyfish, insinuating themselves ever closer. One moment you have the impression they’re completely still; the next moment you realize they’ve made another leap towards the shore.
There’s silence, as if a sonic wall would stand somewhere between the land and the sea. I can see the electric build-up in the clouds. I can see the heavy curtains of rain. But no sound reaches me.
Soon this space will all be mine.
I will be the king of sandcastles broken down by the rain. Of seaweed strips covering the beach like the innards of an unknown sea animal. Of deadwood brought by the storm, across the waters, from faraway places.
There’s a storm coming, from inside and outside. And I cannot tell anymore where one finishes and the other begins.
I don’t remember what age I was. It must have been somewhere in the fluid and shapeless time of adolescence. I had this dream of a pressure cooker on fire. The cooker was boiling, its lid looking like it’s going to burst open any moment.
I had no interest in pressure cookers. Or in cooking, for that matter. What surprised me is how I felt.
I was watching the lid trembling under the enormous pressure gathering beneath it. I was watching the heavy vapor and the foam gathering on the sides of the cooker. Instead of feeling scared, I felt as if inside the cooker there’s a kernel of pure love radiating in all directions. I felt its power as I was standing there, hypnotized.
I’ve never dreamt like this before. I’ve never felt like this before or since.
It was a very detailed and vivid dream, and it was in color. I very rarely dreamt in color, even back then. While most details have disappeared with time, I still remember how it felt to be overwhelmed by this black hole of love, attracting everything in its proximity. Love compressed at incredible density in the metal pot, oozing out under enormous pressure. Unconditional, unlimited, unbound.
Since then, I’ve had my share of powerful moments. Instances of connection, when everything seemed to open and light up.
Sometimes, it happened when hiking in the wild. Sitting in silence close to a river, in a forest opening. Becoming part of the scene, to the point where the borders between me and the surroundings became blurry.
Sometimes, it happened when opening the window in the morning and taking the first breath of fresh air. That moment of absolute silence and clarity.
Sometimes, it happened with a lover. Watching the light reflecting off her skin in the dark. Getting drunk on her taste and smell. Hear her whispering in my ear, out of control.
Sometimes, it happened when dancing. That feeling of lightness and flow. That weird, intimate connection with a dance partner you’ve never met before – and maybe you’ll never meet again.
Since I had that dream, I’ve been in love and I’ve been loved. But that feeling of being overpowered by pure love never came back. Not even in dreams.