Maastricht is ne brede
Maar Maastricht ‘t is lang
Maastricht is de leukste stad
Gesellig aan de zang
– Maastricht Karnival Song
Maastricht is not broad
But, Maastricht, it is long
Maastricht is the finest city
Gesellig* on the song
Maastricht is eene groete cafe
– Maastricht Karnival Song
Maastricht is one huge cafe.
Note: “Gesellig” is impossible to translate. I have heard it translated “cozy”, “sociable”, “friendly”, “warm”, etc, but no English words seems appropriate. Give me some commentary help here, Yvonne.
Let’s do a little stage setting here, my friends. Are we still friends? I hope so. If so, you will pardon my careless misspellings of Dutch words and my even more comically pathetic attempts at Limburg dialect here and there when I find these more appropo than those of my own beggar’s language. My French, you will note, could kindly be characterized as execrable.
I suggest you read this next bit in “The Speak” on the Amorsplein in Maastricht. It’s really not the place it was when one could find fellows at the bar shaving black hash into their rollups, but it’s heavy with memories for me. I particularly remember catching this one fellow shaving hash. I was looking into the mirror behind the bar.
When last I was in Maastricht in May of 2001, Luc and I were looking down the Brusselsestraat (Or is it “…weg”?. I believe it’s “…straat.” I know there are both, but I’m remembering the street that leads from the Bishopsingel to the main square). It was a Saturday evening. I mentioned to Luc how I loved the place on Saturday evenings. He got this rapt look in his eyes and simply said, “Yes.” His English has always been much more concise and direct than mine.
Maastricht is special to me. I was born in America but, after an extended adolescence, I became a man inside the loins of that lovely creature known as “Maastricht”, just as I got old inside that haggard bitch called “London”, but the latter is another story (I just like taking a shot at that “Engelse Trut”, Toilet-upon-Thames, whenever I get the chance). You can call me “Old Hickory”, for this evening anyhow. Those American soldiers liberated you folks and you folks liberated me. In that respect, you Maastricthenaars and I are even. You might say that the sufferings of my American fathers became the joy of their prodigal son. And what is Maastricht to a man? Well, like everything else, a woman of course.
Luc has a habit of irritating his honey, Yvonne, ‘n echte Maastrichtense, with the claim that Maastricht was the “Leukste Stad en Belgie.” That is why I decided to get on to a bit of Yvonne this evening.
Maastricht! Ah, Maastricht! Mijn prachtige vrouw afgelopen. Maastricht! The Paris of Limburg. I came to think of Maastricht as a hot middle-aged woman drapped in diaphanous lingerie.
So, I set off from Centraal Station and proceed up Stationstraat through Wijk toward the Sint Servassbrug. I am headed for the Perroen to meet Luc and Yvonne. It’s the fall of 1996 or thereabouts. I am early for the get together so I stop in at the Grijsbeck and have a Westmalle Triple, my particular favorite. You know that old joke? “My uncle was a magician. I once saw him walk down the street and turn into a bar.” C’est moi!
After a couple of sips, my mind sailed to Luc and Yvonne. I’m going to tell you all I know about Luc and Yvonne (you know, Luc&Yvonne as a couple, as that single organism with two heads known as “lovers”) eventually as, in my mind, Yvonne is to women as Luc is to men, as the Netherlands and Belgium are to the world: giants enjoying life in small bodies. But now, I just want a bit of a holiday for the evening, so I’ll digress as I please.
I was going to meet the man and the woman.
Isn’t it fine walking through that town, particularly on a Saturday evening? All the women are turned out so breathtakingly, and they have those expectant pre-coital expressions on their faces. The place is a goddamn orgasm waiting to happen! I always knew that the bedroom church bells would be ringing wildly before dawn Sunday morning. Occasionally, those bells clanged for me.
Over my first Westmalle at the Grijsbeck, I reflected on the first time I met Yvonne in the late summer of 1985. Luc and I had become friends by then. In fact, by then, we were moving toward becoming co-conspirators. We were sitting in the Vogel Struys (“De hoeskamer van Maastricht”) on the Vrijthoff that evening, going over the most recent prattfalls of the failing information company that was paying for our pils and bills. My English lover Margaret had joined us – we’d be ringing the bells later that evening and that always put me in a good mood. Oh! Oh! Oh! How that woman could “ride the pony”!
So, I am sitting with my back to the wall. This woman comes through the curtains around the door. Check that: This WOMAN comes through the curtains around the door. This is a Maastrichtense! Jesus! I am transfixed. She looks around. I watch her look around. I fall off the train of the conversation. Margaret says, “Tom? Tom? Tom!” I can’t answer. I’ve forgotten Margaret’s name. Then, SHE is approaching OUR table! Maybe SHE’s looking at me! SHE’s wearing a black dress with a slit up the right thigh. SHE’s made up and set out exquisitely. As we say in America, SHE is “a long drink of water on a thirsty day.” I give up the pretense of not staring. I believe I kept my mouth closed – I was that decorous anyhow. Then! Then! Then! SHE, this magical creature, walks up to this goddamned blue-jeaned hippie programmer, this Luc Dubois, and kisses HIM! And it wasn’t one of those “hey good buddy” kisses. It was one of those “you’re gonna have a lot of fun later” kisses. To borrow a bit of British idiom, I was gob smacked.
Women! Goddamn them all to hell and me, alone, with them!
So then, back to the Grijsbeck in the fall of 1996. Where do we go? Does it matter? I never thought so. It’s Maastricht and I’m on holiday and I have plenty of time before meeting Luc and Yvonne. What the hell?
“Meneer? Meneer? Meneer! Nog ‘n Westmalle voor mijn, alsublief.”
It’s so lovely to watch the barman ease it from the bottle into the glass. I took my time over the glass but, as I am not much of an eater, I was a bit waxed as I walked back out onto Stationstraat (OK! OK! I had a couple of beers on the train from Brussels! Get off my back! Who the hell do you think you are? You’re not my ex-wife. You’re just some anonymous reader……No, wait! Don’t go! Don’t be insulted. Relax. Don’t get angry. I’m just kidding. We’re friends, you and I. Calm down. Remember, “Maastricht is ne zwaar.” Come on back. Listen, have a Westmalle on me now. Here in the Grijsbeck. I’ve just rolled a cigarette. Alsublief. Vuur? Natuurlijk. Here. Relax. Listen. (Jesus! Look at that woman!) I may seem to be a bit of an insulting fool, but what if Lear had listened to his insulting fool? Things might have ended better for the old boy.) After you finish your cigarette, we’ll continue up Stationstraat.
Alright, here we are, back on Stationstraat, walking, as Hemingway wrote, “unsteadily but with dignity.” And there it is. That light. That shimmering diffuse light that I have experienced only in Northern Europe. One-hundred and eighty degrees of beauty. Meteorologists tell me that it’s the moisture in the air. I don’t know. I believe it to be an epiphany, a three-dimensional Turner watercolor.
Then the disappointment of the Maas at the Sint Servaasbrug. You Maastrichtenaars really should do something about that river. It should be sky blue to complement the light.
Work on it.
Oh well. Contrast is as important as complement, I suppose.
Up the hill toward that cathedral known as “V&D” and, more importantly, the Mouton Blanc. Yeah, it’s a bar. We’ll check out the Maastrichter Geis statute and drop into ‘t pothuiske tomorrow. Yeah, it’s a bar. I was going to take the Achter het Vleeshuisstraat, the quick route, but I want to walk by the Wolfstraat (Oh God! That beautiful Maastrichtense who tried to teach me Dutch! How the hell was she expecting me to learn Dutch when all I could think about in her presence was drowning in her eyes? I learned some things from her anyway.) and the site of the long-gone company, Europa Dada (one must attend a graveside occasionally), so I turned toward Bredestraat. The Vrijthoff was coming. The expanse. The full evening sky. Luc & Yvonne, my friends, on the opposite side.
My bag was beginning to get heavier as I approached the Perroen. There they were. Dubwah and Ritzen, walking in just as I arrived.
“DUBWAH! DUBWAH!” All of the sudden I was levitating. I knew I hadn’t drunk that much yet. No. Luc was carrying me into the cafe. I was being ported across the threshold of the cafe by this Flemish lunatic! I fear that, under some little-known Medieval Flemish law, we may be married.
Yvonne was there, with that crazy-ass laughter of hers. Needless to say, I was charmed and not a little envious of Luc. She set off to get us a round of drinks (I watched her as she walked off. That woman knows how to walk off. She defines the word “afgelopen”.), while I champed at the bit to tell my latest Flemish story.
Like Jacques Brel, I am about to flatter myself. “Je suis Flamand.” Hence, I know a Flamand when I see one. He has that weirdly focused look in his eyes, like he’s looking at the whole world at once and putting it all inside. When Yvonne returned with the beers (I remember it being Kreik Lambric, but I’m unclear about that), I let loose with my story.
On the train from Brussels to Maastricht, I heard this announcement in French, something about the train being broken up into cars at Liege. Some of the cars were going to Maastricht and some not. I stopped the conductor and, knowing he was Walloon and possibly couldn’t, and probably didn’t want to, speak to me in English, I set off in my stumbling pidgin French.
“Est-ce cette voiture va a Maastricht?”
“Non. Non….” Then, he broke into those insane French numbers regarding the cars that were headed for Maastricht. How did those people breed so many brilliant mathematicians with those lunatic numbers? I mean really. Ninety is “ninety”, not “four times twenty plus ten”. I was flummoxed. I sat back down and figured I’d just get off the train in Liege and look around.
There was this fellow traveller sitting across the aisle. I’d noticed him when he boarded the train at Leuven. I didn’t have to note that he was reading a Dutch novel to realize he was Flemish. He had that weird focused look in his eyes. He was Luc. Not exactly but, trust me, he was Luc.
Once I had failed to communicate with the conductor and sat back down in defeat to consider my options, I noted that the Flamand, with a weary end-of-the-day look in his eyes, had approached me. He pulled an envelope from his pocket, laid it against the back of the novel he had closed temporarily, and drew the following diagram:
I was in the presence of the greatness of simplicity. It was the only time in my life I’ve felt like kissing a man other than my father.
He didn’t look like he wanted a kiss so I let it go.
Back to Maastricht and the Perroen. We ordered dinner. It came. I’m not a big eater (usually a beer for the starter and a cigarette for the main course) whereas Luc and Yvonne eat like healthy, omnivorous, ravenous animals. It’s really kind of frightening. When I am crashing at their place, as I did that evening, I put a heavy object against the inside of my bedroom door just in case they wake up with an indiscriminate appetite during the night. I don’t want to rise in the morning with all the flesh missing from my bones.
Yvonne? Well, as usual, Yvonne was in perpetual motion that evening. She’s a woman who proves that the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle can be applied to human social life.
We moved on to Belgium, someplace in the neighborhood of their house in Kleinespowen or, as Luc has translated it, “Little Puke”. It’s actually kind of a nice place, but too pretty for my tastes. Their house though, that is to my taste. More on that anon. Now, we’re out for the evening.
The usual manic talking and drinking ensued. But this is the point, the departure, that struck me. Luc began to go mad. I had never seen him act like this! He jumped up and began dancing. How can I describe it? It’s not the right word, but it really is the only description. He was dancing “acappella”. I didn’t hear any music anyhow. Maybe he did. How can I describe his dancing? Can you imagine Groucho Marx doing a goose step? He kept going outside and coming back, dancing this mad goose step, dodging back and forth and in and out.
But his shocking behavior (remember, I lived in England, so sometimes I’ll lapse into tight-assed expressions like “shocking behavior”) was not the most interesting side of the evening.
It was Yvonne. I looked at her with one of those “what’s going on here?” expressions. She was crying. Tears of joy. “I love him so much!”
A woman’s tears of joy are holy water.
Our Flemish David continued dancing the fool before Our Dutch Bathsheba. I watched in awe.
Ah! To be loved like that!
END CHAPTER TWO.