A Writer Falls In Love Abroad

The psychologist Otto Rank wrote that artists are perpetually in conflict with life.  They need seclusion to produce their work, but they also need to go out into the world for stimulation to create their art.

Whatever takes me away from home, I’m always receptive to possible locations for stories, essays, and books–and I return with lots of notes and photographs.  I was recently in Ghent, Belgium on a travel grant, liaising with officials from Ghent University to explore the possibility of a study abroad program with Michigan State University.  The city is widely called “a hidden gem.” It’s all that, and more.  Day after day I felt bombarded with impressions and ideas I knew would fuel my writing down the road.  I fell in love with a city I’d known almost nothing about, and fell hard.  Here’s why.

First there are the people. As my favorite author Henry James would have put it, “the note” of the city is friendliness. I got that vibe everywhere, whether in sandwich or coffee shops, stores, restaurants, and even from strangers who helped me when I got slightly lost. Some of them walked a short distance with me to make sure I was headed in the right direction.

As a writer, I seek comfort and quiet when I travel and the Carlton Hotel Gent was the epitome of those things. Family owned, boutique-style, it was smoothly run, ultra-quiet, close to the train station, served delicious breakfasts, and the owners were perfect guides to the city and its restaurants. The hip Café Parti was nearby and if could’ve eaten every lunch and dinner there, I would have. It served Belgian specialties that I’d sampled before in Brussels and Bruges, but they were exceptional, especially the stoofvlees, a beef stew made with dark beer, and the onglet, hanger steak better than any I’d had in the U.S.

I liked the modern lines of the hotel and the Café Parti (above) because Ghent has so much history in its architecture, from the Renaissance buildings along the canals, to the Romanesque St. Bavo Cathedral and the medieval Gravensteen fortress at the city center. Dipping in and out of these different periods was intensely enjoyable. And so was sampling my favorite Belgian chocolate, Neuhaus, and a Ghent specialty, neuzekes, candies filled with raspberry syrup that look like little pointed hats and are partly made with gum Arabic. They’re sensational.

Bikes are king in Ghent, or so they say, and it apparently has the largest bike-friendly zone in Europe. Ghent was the first city to designate a street as a “cycle street”—meaning that cars have to stay behind bikes. They’re everywhere, weaving through traffic and around the trams which snake along the sinuous streets which seem unlike any other street plan I’m familiar with from my previous years of visiting Western. There was something very calming about riding a tram or just watching one.

For a city which is the third largest port in Belgium, and has 250,000 residents, Ghent never felt overwhelming. It welcomed and fascinated me, and unlike the more famous Bruges half an hour away (which has twice as many tourists), it didn’t feel like a museum despite the amazing architecture from so many different periods.

Before I got there, I had plans to set a novel elsewhere in Flanders, but after this past week, the novel-in-progress has moved to Ghent.  Frankly, I wish I could, too.  For awhile, anyway….

Lev Raphael is the author of the memoir/travelogue My Germany and 24 other books in many genres. He speaks French, German, and some Dutch.

6 thoughts on “A Writer Falls In Love Abroad

  1. Sounds like a lovely trip. I was in Antwerp, Belgium 2 years ago visiting Friends from my study abroad in Germany. After seeing the movie In Bruges, I had always wanted to visit that town and did so on this trip. It was amazing. The history and architecture is fascinating. I’d love to go back and see more. So excited about your next novel!

    • Antwerp has such a different feel–is so very commercial, what little I saw of it. Then Bruges is all the way at the other end of the spectrum, exquisite. For me, Ghent was right in the middle, and perfect. Highly recommended.

  2. Thanks for sharing your enthusiasm so eloquently. Your love for Ghent is akin to mine, but I didn’t have to travel that far to get to know this laid-back and friendly city better :-). I grew up in the border-region between Flanders and The Netherlands, and even when I was young (which was, ehhh, long ago), Ghent had the reputation of being the lovable city of free spirits. When I was nineteen, an SF-author from Ghent – Eddy C. Bertin – took me, second son of a working class-family aspiring to become an author, under his wings. I visited him monthly for years, learning the craft of writing a (hopefully) good story. I am a country-boy and not particularly fond of cities, but in Ghent I blossomed. For decades, I wanted to move and live there. Fate decided otherwise, but 13 years ago, when I was 51, I met a new woman in my life, and, guess what, she has an equitherapy horse-ranch about a quarter of an hour drive from Ghent…Now, I have the best of both worlds: our animals on the country-side whom (and I write whom deliberately for they are noble souls) we love dearly, and the presence of Ghent so close by. You’ll find me there at least two times a month, perusing a lovely little second-hand bookshop filled to the brink with English-language novels. My best friend in the Flemish novelist community is the fabulous young author Bavo Dhooge…Guess where he lives…. 🙂

    • That sounds like an ideal situation to be so close to someplace so marvelous. I didn’t know Ghent’s reputation as “a lovable city of free spirits.” But it certainly fits the vibe I picked up and probably accounts for why I connected with it. I grew up in New York, which is certainly a place for free spirits, though maybe not always lovable. 🙂

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