Monday, January 23, 2012

Life, Off the Clock

If you’re like me, your cell phone is your watch. Not only is it a vibrating anchor that keeps you moored to your whole life through SMS, email, conversations home to your family on your evening commute, etc., it also keeps you punctual (although really less so, if you’re me).

Sunrise on my Street
However, ever since I cancelled my service for this trip, my cell phone that I had planned on using as camera, pocket watch and alarm clock has stopped resolutely at January 1st, 2012 12 a.m.  There are no instructions on how to manually change this anywhere. Once this problem emerged, JP and D promptly offered one of their spare watches for my use and I gratefully accepted it, changed out the batteries, and set the time.

The unfortunate part of this arrangement, however, is that I am just not accustomed to wearing a watch. I keep thinking it’s an elastic hair band and trying to put my hair back with it or else rearranging it in different positions while my hands rest on the keyboard. Or, just not wearing it at all.

For the past three days I’ve left the house having forgotten to put the watch on. Once I get to the tram stop and look to see when the next one should be pulling up, I realize that I’ve left the darned thing at home again next to Paulo Coelho’s Brida (in French) and a button that’s fallen off of my coat. Great!

Chocolates at Neuhaus by Bri Seeley
But really, it is kind of wonderful. Time is an idea, right? A human invention. So for however long I’m without a clock, it kind of doesn’t exist... There’s only: “it’s darker now,” “I’m hungry,” “I think I feel like heading home.” When Bri and I left to explore the center of old Brussels on Saturday night, we paced our evening entirely by how we were feeling. We didn’t worry about when the next train was coming, we simply sat down, rearranged our scarves and continued talking as we roamed from one location to the next. We took several unnecessary walks along the cobblestones that tried to trip us up by our high heels at every turn and took time to peer into shop windows, sample chocolate at Neuhaus, take pictures, fix our hair (which looked rather frightful after the wind we walked through to get there).

It also keeps you looking up. The time here isn’t (usually) on some flashing billboard on the side of the building. It’s usually on an old clock on a tower that’s shading some plaza. If you’re looking around, scanning the turrets or statuary in a particular area, you’ll probably run across one with its long arms pointing reliably at some Roman numerals. This way you can check back in – “ah, it’s 8:30” – and time briefly exists again.

It’s a departure from “real life” in this way. The way we’ve arranged everything in the “real world” leaves no room for meandering, so we have abide by a schedule. It’s a practical invention, but one that I’m not missing any more than I’m missing my morning coffee from McDonald’s.

Bri et Moi at the Grand Place (finally) by Bri Seeley
When we went out Saturday night, we took the metro into the center of town. As we went underground there was a light breeze and a mist in the air, but by the time that we had arrived at Gare Central, the rain has begun in earnest – not the noncommittal Seattle rain that drizzles in a fine mist, but a straight-down, puddle-splashing rain that beaded up on our coats and found its way down our collars. It was coupled with a rather violent wind that raked at all of our clothes – knocking off my hat and flipping Bri’s umbrella inside out (when we examine the damage later we’ll notice that all of its metal tines have bowed out and no longer close properly). We had to duck behind an old sandstone column and pause for a moment to wrap our scarves more tightly around ourselves, pull our skirts down to cover more of our tights and put on our gloves. In the downhill slope to the Grand Place, we lean into the wind and stuff our hands as deep into our pockets as we can. We can see the spire of the Town Hall in the center of Grand Place down below us, but we feel like we might have our clothes torn off us at any moment by the wind before we reach it and instead arrive naked in the city square.

And then, suddenly, we emerge from the meandering little alleys crammed with sidewalk tables and pedestrians and we are in the Grand Place city square and the wind has calmed and it’s stopped raining and after the work out of fighting to get there, we find we are warm again and we decide to take a walk down to the Mannekin Pis that is just three short blocks from Grand Place. All of the avenues are strung with lights and all of the shops are well-lit and blasting heat that floods out into the little streets and we can hear a salad of languages as we tromp towards our destination.

Manneken Pis by Bri Seeley
The Manneken Pis. It’s a two-foot tall bronze statue of a naked little boy peeing into a basin. It would be an otherwise vacant corner of the city, but the Mannekin Pis is the mascot of Brussels, and there’s a large crowd of tourists standing all around him taking pictures.

He’s charming, sure. And there are lots of little stories about his significance. One story goes that a two-year-old Duke’s troops were battling and in order to save their lord, the troops placed him in a basket and hung it from a tree in order to encourage their efforts and what did the Duke contribute? He peed on the offending troops who subsequently lost the battle. Or there’s a legend about a young boy named Julianske who happened to be spying on another foreign power that was laying siege to Brussels, which had held out for some time. The offensive troops planned to destroy the city with explosives at the city walls and little Julian urinated on the burning fuse and saved the city.

I like these stories, but it turns out that none of them are true. Rick Steve’s reports that the little kid was commissioned by the city as a symbol of Brussels’ irreverence and joie de vivre. Heads of state and various foreign powers make gifts of outfits for the statue that are changed with great aplomb; accompanied by music and sometimes beer that the little boy pees out and can be served to passersby. I don't know if I would have chosen a little boy peeing in order to illustrate my city, but at the same time, I feel reminded that Brussels is a city with an appreciable sense of humor.

Anyways, we saw him – hung out in the crowd briefly, snapped a picture and ducked in for some chocolate in the nearest open door. And then we made our way back for dinner. Not without some risks on our part. Bri is creeped out by human statues and there were a few of them on the path to the Manneken Pis and she bravely forged ahead even as they reached out to pinch the arm of an American toddler also in the flow of traffic.

Searching for Dinner by Bri Seeley
And in making a decision to dine here in the heart of Brussels it turns out that dinner itself is not nearly the event that finding a place to have dinner is. 

All along the Rue des Bouchers there are hosts that have the same role as carnival barkers. They try to stop you and talk up their menus, get you to take a table at their restaurant.

“Ducati. Lamborghini. Ferrari. Come with me, Ladies. I take you out in this,” they entreat us from their storefronts.

“Please, beautiful ladies. I have the best food here,” they point to their menus, “just ten Euros. We have the best mussels.”

“A massage after dinner,” one of them beckons.

It’s all flattery and seems far more Italian than Belgian to me – forward, not necessarily sincere, but certainly pleasurable. We spend almost an hour letting the aggressive and boisterous male hosts along the Rue de Bouchers invite us to take a table before we decide on a simple Italian restaurant and both order the Margherita pizza, which we tuck away neatly – one crisply crusted bite at a time.

Grand Place after Dinner
We have plans to go to a small bar renowned for its pear cider, but since we have no schedule and we’re having such a nice time, we decide to take another walk – running across many of the disappointed hosts whose venues we didn’t visit and we circle the square, watching tourists, seeing if we can pick out the other Americans in the crowd, listening to the wah-wah siren of some police car in the distance, we look at the ceilings of the lit rooms in each of the buildings around the square that we can see and evaluate their patterns before retreating into the heat of an old English style pub, Delirium.

In terms of getting a view of Belgium culture, Delirium fails. Everyone speaks English and a crowd of teenagers in the corner are loudly singing along to “Back in Black,” but the Pear cider does not disappoint and Bri and I spend the next few hours hashing out our lives, talking about travel, the books we want to write, love. The sort of conversation that rambles comfortably when no one has plans to be anywhere else and no time to get there.

Bri et Moi by Bri Seeley
One of my goals for 2012 is to adopt the attitude of “everything as it is.” Spend more time in the present, spend less time processing or projecting and just be here. Be in this moment without wondering what’s going on in the room I just left or the to do list growing on the desk at home. So far, one of the keys to this experience is life without a watch. Something that is easier here, but still something I can try on from time to time when I get home.

Turn off the clock, shut down the wireless and just have a moment. Just you and your journal, your friend, your lover. These are lessons from a life off the clock.


  1. When your Dad and I were datng, at one point, as we were saying our goodbyes, arms around one another, I sensed he was looking at his watch. I turned on him and asked him if saying good-bye was on a time schedule. He bared his wrist and said, "but I don't have a watch". I wilted in shame....until he admitted that he thought he had it on. Ah, life without a watch. Do you think retirement will allow me to do that?

  2. I think you CAN do it anytime. But I don't think we let ourselves do it that often and it isn't always practical - we've put most of our lives on a schedule. I definitely recommend it though, Maman. Leave your watch at home for a few days. No clocks for you!