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Monday, June 10, 2024

Opinion: Living in History

I recently took a trip to Bruges, Belgium — a slightly unconventional stop for the American abroad. It’s a name that usually precedes reaching for a map.

If the goal of a vacation is to become lost, I succeeded on accident. It turns out this was necessary to find out not just where, but also when, I was.

What little I knew about Bruges is that it is very beautiful and very old. That statement can be applied to most places in Europe.

Bruges is notable because what is old is never separate. The old is never established as The Other.
Stonehenge, for example, is a tourist attraction to gawk at before returning to modern life. Fanny-pack toting, camera-armed rubberneckers can exit the highway, take a few snaps and drive off again. I’ve never actually been to Stonehenge, though a Welsh guy I met told me as much.

Stephansplatz Cathedral, in Vienna, sits among modern clothing stores in the shopping district. Sightseers are shared between the old and new.

By comparison, Bruges is absolute in its ancientness. The large majority of buildings in the center of the city are hundreds of years old. The same goes for the canals and roads that transport the denizens of this fanciful town through space and time.

Bruges is a museum. Most everything has great significance and the past constantly intrudes on the present. Things are not to be moved around. Redevelopment is a curse word. There will be no skyscrapers.
Medieval landmarks still dominate the skyline, and most likely always will. Any effort to draw attention away from heritage, history and tradition is to be scrutinized.

In the town square there is a belfry tower completed in the 1400s, its bells ringing out on the hour. There are wooden windmills. There are so many swans it seems as if all swans must be from Bruges. It’s all nauseatingly pretty.

The tower of The Church of our Lady epitomizes solidity, one of the largest brick structures in the world. It stands firm in angry, red defiance of our modern steel buildings that sway in the wind.

The cobblestone streets attacked the arches of my feet with all the malevolence of a crotchety senior.
Beer, a drink that was initially brewed before the first crusades, is traditional. At the time it was preferred to drinking water, as it was more sanitary.

If Bruges was a country, its chief export would almost certainly be oldness.

What I found myself wondering is what it would be like to live in Bruges — to overtly live in history. When you live in a house that was built in the 15th century, you are reminded of how old the world is every day.

It requires an especially anachronistic frame of mind to accept that your home and office are medieval, that you may get around by horse and buggy if you wish, and that it’s all something worth tweeting about.
Human activity in the Bruges area predates the Romans, and it’s not hard to imagine by looking around.
This calls to mind all the people that lived before the present. All those that built the belfry and dug the canals that attracted me to Bruges have long since disappeared.

This is a context that is lacking in Davis. Our place in time is not so immediately apparent — it takes a little more meditation. That we live in history is a concept so hugely obvious that it doesn’t come up very often.

Another seemingly imperceptible truism is our mortality. Most college students do not think about this. Why should we?

If life is anything like a college course, then death is its defining topic. This will become more apparent by the midterm. Yes, you will be tested on this.

Kitschy tourist traps notwithstanding (there is a museum in Bruges that features a life-size chocolate model of President Barack Obama) wandering the streets has a tempering effect. Just as you appreciate how many came before, you see there will be many after.

To recite some platitudes: live like there’s no tomorrow, life is short, YOLO and all that.

Our lives are a blip on the spectrum of time. We shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously. If that upsets you, remember that you don’t have to take me or this column seriously either.

You can email SEAN LENEHAN with existential crises at splenehan@ucdavis.edu, but what’s the point really?


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