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The man who’d walked from Ghent to Brussels

An unnamed man will forever stay in my memory. Sat at Brussels International train station engrossed in a book, a man peered over the top, his eyes meeting mine and asked if I was English. The response was obvious, I couldn’t feign a fake French accent, the book I was reading was in English. He’d spotted me and told me outright he needed 56 euros to get back to Birmingham. After several minutes of ensuring him I actually couldn’t help him, he gave in and wandered off through the station. He was dishevelled and sweaty, I couldn’t help him but instinct told me he wasn’t simply begging – there was a genuine reason why he needed this money, irrespective of that reason being justifiable for everyone else. The intensity on his face suggested determination, he seemed like someone who had been pushed to the brink and actually did need to get back to Birmingham.

Brussels International train station I sat needing a cigarette after our brief but intense exchange, I waited a while to make sure not to not bump into him again. Here I was, a young woman on my own and I only had 70 euros myself. Eventually I reasoned that I would be fine in an area filled with British diplomats and close by to this bustling station in the heart of the EU. The suits and Belgian police would be close, I would be safe. Collecting my things together, finding my smokes I made my way outside and sat on the first bench I saw. Quietly enjoying my last hour or so in Brussels, watching the accordion players busying themselves getting in the faces of people leisurely enjoying their meals at the opposite restaurants, and the suits of the EU stack of cards chortling with each other, along came my friend.

Oh what fresh hell I thought as he made his way towards me again. Again he asked for a straight up 56 euros. I reminded him that we had already met ten minutes ago and I wasn’t able to help him. The problem with exchanges like this is that neither side knows whose telling the truth, no one wants to give away free money to someone wandering through a station. It’s simply down to one side accepting whatever the other is saying.

By now I found myself in a conversation with him as he sat next to me. Dressed in tracksuit bottoms, and a white t-shirt, dad sandals and socks with a thick Brummy accent, he was exhausted he explained, as he had just walked from Ghent to Brussels. Google maps tells me this is 11 hours walking distance. But he hadn’t just come from Ghent, the city, he had come from the outskirts – somewhere in the Belgian countryside. A cigarette can bond two of the most opposing strangers. Sometimes it opens the door for a snippet of a life story. And so it was to be, despite my determination to avoid this human, who knows what people are capable of when desperate enough, he began to tell me. He’d found himself walking to Brussels after staying for over a month with a Belgian millionaire in a grand house. Did you know this person beforehand, I asked? No was his reply. “A month!” I exclaimed. This man was clearly a liberty taker, one of those to whom things were owed, and when it’s gone they are left bemused. Who knows what happened in that mansion, but here he was now, feet blistering up and in a situation of relying on the kindness of complete strangers. His tide had turned and now he was looking merely to survive.

180914shutterstock_193760477In turn I offered him some logic, but people never follow advice. I pointed out that no one is just going to hand over a specific 56 euros, and in a strange moment of normality we talked about the exchange rate. I said if he asked for British pounds it would sound better as it was smaller, and to ask for it in bits. Unfortunately for him, by stopping me, he had bumped into a streetwise reader who’d just started a book depicting the journey of another man, around his age, who travelled across the continent to every EU city by trains or hitch-hiking, without ever handling money. The author of Gatecrashing Europe was the epitome of creative jumping on and off trains. One of the finest gems of the EU is how its infrastructure has connected the continent to the little island of Great Britain. It was not an impossible task, he was in Brussels I pointed out. The centre of EU diplomacy, where virtually everyone could speak English. I gave him bits of the authors experience, and suggested some pragmatism otherwise he could be there all day just pissing people off and getting increasingly frustrated – he was determined to catch the 9pm coach from Brussels to London, it was now 6pm. He was more likely to get home if he told the police that he had been mugged and had no money. It wasn’t a complete lie I explained, but it if meant sympathy and the use of European relations, he’d be home much quicker and in a better condition. He was more likely to be looked after by some formal authority system, than strangers in the street rushing to get home or to work. And no one would be out of pocket in his quest for help. His response was that he would rather not lie to the authorities, that he “would rather be good”. This really wasn’t the time to weigh up morals about lying to authority figures. You don’t even have to speak another language, just be pragmatic I explained. But clearly in the state he was in, his decision making knew best. He was visibly ill from the journey, so I gave him my water. He feigned politeness by saying he didn’t want to drink all of it, but as he got going, there was no stopping. “If I can’t help you with money, or the knowledge of someone’s experiences in using the European train network for free, then you may as well have my water,” and with that the cigarette came to an end and I said my goodbyes and good lucks. I sometimes wonder if he made it back, or if he carried on walking, there’s something admirable about people venturing out on insane journeys. He may have lost some dignity, but he’ll praise himself for those adventures in later years.

Pictures courtesy of Shutterstock.

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