The disabled old man and his wife (hostel in Amsterdam)
He sat in front of me again. The same dark red shirt. The same posture. With his back facing me, he lowered his head and stayed there motionless. Only occasionally did he look around for a few seconds, and then he lowered his head again as if he were falling back to sleep.
At the beginning of July, I stayed in a hostel in Amsterdam for two weeks. I woke up early and went downstairs for breakfast in the hostel every morning.
One day during breakfast, I saw out of the corner of my eye that a dark red figure drifted by me in slow motion and sat down at the table in front of mine. I raised my head and realized that he was a disabled old man who had to walk around very slowly with metal crutches. As he sat down, I gazed at his languid figure and somehow thought of my grandfather.
Later his wife came. She was tall and slim. Her short silver hair with a blunt bang and triangular black-rimmed glasses reminded me of Anna Wintour. But unlike the fashion icon, she was simply dressed: a black cardigan with a white shirt inside and black slacks. She gently put a hand on the old man’s shoulder and greeted him softly.
She soon brought back a plate of food for her husband, and then another for herself. Unlike her husband, she walked very quickly in small steps, with her body leaning forward as if she were about to fall facedown. After the wife sat down, she took out a city map. They went on discussing their travel plans for the day, but it was always the wife proposing where to go. The husband gladly agreed with everything.
I was so touched by their love and passion for living and traveling together. It is easy to stay lazy — to find excuses to not stand up with crutches — after facing challenging circumstances. But it is the brave ones, the strong ones and the wise ones who know how to continue seeking happiness and adventure, even during the twilight years of life.
I saw them during breakfast every morning. The same table, the same routine for both of them. Even the same clothes. I also saw them once at night in the bar. They were sitting on a bigger table, each with a bottle of Dutch beer. The light cast upon their faces was yellow and warm, similar to but softer than the sunlight outside.
Young lovers on the train (from Luxembourg to Antwerp)
I took a weekend trip to Luxembourg by myself. I traveled for five hours by train.
The scenery outside the window took my breath away. It was trees after trees, hills next to hills, one green polder after another, wildflowers of all colors and above all a cobalt blue sky full of big, floating clouds. Cows and sheep stood still, while everything moved all together in a horizontal transition back into the past. Occasionally a few austere houses stood on the fields, looking empty but not forlorn.
The train was running alone in nature, while I was sitting alone in the train.
The train was almost empty. The few people on board included a young couple sitting across the aisle from me. They were whispering in a language that I failed to identify. They sat face-to-face in the same posture, putting their elbows next to each other’s on the little table and supporting their heads with both hands. The girl had a ponytail. The guy dyed part of his hair gold.
They both looked outside the window at first. The guy pointed to something and the girl started to laugh. Then he looked at her and gently patted her hair to get her attention. They looked at each other face to face and whispered the lover’s discourse. For a moment, they were oblivious to the beautiful view outside, to the quiet observer sitting nearby, to the noises of the old train. They constructed their own world — a momentary world that was burning fervently within but insensible to everything outside.
I kept falling in and out of dreams during those five hours. When I completely woke myself up, they were already gone, bringing the entire lovers’ world with them and leaving nothing behind for the loners among the rest.
The merry dancing couple (gay bar in Antwerp)
Right after I returned to Antwerp from Luxembourg, I went to a small gay bar with a friend. The red neon light brought a sense of enchantment and mystery to everything inside. A plump drag queen named Patricia was performing lip sync. Wearing a puffy, red dress and a white wig, the drag queen stood under the spotlight and danced in exaggerated moves.
A group of people crowded in front of her and danced wildly to the dramatic music. Some people wore tank tops and shorts, exposing tattoos all over their bodies. Some wore fashionable, tight, black pants and white T-shirts. Some kept grinding and twerking on each other. Some sat quietly on high stools by themselves and swayed subtly to the music. Everybody raised their arms up in the air and cheered at the end of every song.
My friend and I each grabbed a glass of Belgian beer and leaned on the window. There was a couple in front of us. Both of them wore casual polo shirts and men’s shorts.
They stood by themselves next to the bar counter, looked at each other in the eyes, held each other’s waist, exchanged light kisses, sang along with the loud music and swayed their whole bodies with great emotion. During the climax of one song, the younger and taller man held his partner’s hand up in the air, while the older man rotated somewhat awkwardly but cheerfully under his arm.
I looked at their sweet smiles and was touched. Those are the smiles that people living in some other countries have longed for all their lives. But it is almost impossible for them to be acknowledged and accepted by their own cultures.
Later, the drag queen came, patted their butts and teased about their intimacy. A few other men also waved to them and came to kiss their cheeks. The couple smiled shyly to everybody around them, and then to each other again.
The luckiest man in town (Flemish dinner host in Ghent)
On the last night, I was invited, along with two others, to go visit a local’s home for a Flemish dinner.
Upon entering the house, we met his wife and granddaughter. His wife was very quiet. She wore a bright yellow dress, which made her look elegant but also youthful. When we were chatting in their backyard, the wife was in the kitchen preparing snacks and wine.
Later, we moved to the dinner table. The granddaughter told us that her grandma was busy all day preparing for dinner. The starter was a cold dish with shrimps inside a tomato, the main course was chicken breast served with wine and the dessert was blueberry cakes. After the dessert, we were provided with green tea or coffee, Belgian chocolate and local sweets called “noses.” The man teased his wife before the food was served, pretending to doubt its tastiness. But he was also the first one to applaud after we took our first bites.
The conversation lasted for almost five hours. It flowed spontaneously in all directions. The man even told us of an interesting incident when he was hung on the tree branch after the ladder slipped and how his neighbor climbed the wall to save him. His wife suddenly opened her mouth and said slowly in English: “Nobody was at home. It’s unimaginable, what would happen if the neighbor wasn’t there.”
The wife scarcely ever talked. Even when we praised her cooking skill, she just smiled gracefully. But she became excited when her husband began to talk about their upcoming trip to Lebanon. She told us proudly that she had been to many places with her husband, and sometimes with her grandchildren. She then pulled out her phone to show us pictures of her two little grandsons.
During our conversation, someone at the table suddenly said to the man: “You’re so lucky to have met and married your wife!” He then giggled with a mischievous gleam in his eyes. Raising his hand high in the air, he said happily, “Lucky? Well, I confirm!”
When we had to say goodbye, they hugged me tightly and kissed me on both cheeks. I was never too close with my grandparents, so I was touched by their amiability and cordiality toward us, as well as their enduring companionship and love toward one another.
A little girl in a bright red dress (Acne Studios in Antwerp)
When I was shopping in Acne Studios in Antwerp, I was a little impatient when I saw an old man standing in front of the clothes and blocking my way. He put his right hand in his pocket and just stood there, staring in another direction. Excuse me, I said. He moved forward enough to let me squeeze past, but then he kept standing there and staring in the same direction.
I looked at him and realized he was quite fashionable for his age: Gray crew socks with black leather shoes. Short-sleeved shirt and shorts both light-colored. A khaki cap on his head and a petite, feminine backpack.
I continued walking and sifting through hanging clothes until I heard a door open behind me. I turned around and saw it was the man’s wife walking out of the fitting room. She had a short cropped hairstyle and wore a bright red dress inside a white shirt, which she was trying on. She asked her husband for his opinion. With both of her hands tightly pressed against her thighs, she even looked nervous, like a timid young girl standing in front of her date for the first time.
The man carefully examined the white shirt, which seemed to me a little too loose. He didn’t speak much — only slightly opened his mouth to utter a few words. Then the woman asked for a smaller size immediately. After the woman went back into the fitting room, the man continued standing there in the same position, with his hand in his pocket and his eyes fixed on the door.
I later saw the man and his wife checking out. The man carried all the shopping bags while the woman leaned on her husband like a little girl.
It is the little things that tell us about what love is.
Contact Raina Yang at [email protected]