Wednesday I visited the café across the street from our apartment (pictured here from our balcony) for the first time. Our landlord, Frank, invited me to join him and his two friends Jennifer and Sel for a drink. Jennifer is an art dealer from Toronto, and Sel (pronounced sort of like “sill” but more complicated than I’m prepared to explain here) is a local. Both live in Antwerp not far from us. We sat at the bistro tables on the sidewalk and enjoyed our drinks, watching people (which seems to be a well-favored international sport, here in Europe), and chatting. Sel and I each had a Masala Chai, which the server had assured us did not include sugar. Served in a tall glass, the tea was exotically spicy and as promised was not at all sugary, had a lovely layer of foam on top sprinkled with spices, and was absolutely delicious.
As we sat visiting at tables outside on the sidewalk, the noise of an approaching rowdy party began to build. Soon it was enough of a commotion to bring conversation at the café to a halt, with all heads turning to see what on earth was coming up the street. Around the corner came a vehicle that I have to say was completely unique to my experience, although I understand now that it is not an uncommon sight here. I was sorry I did not have my camera with me. I’ll attempt to paint a mental picture for you.
The contraption was about the size of a large van. It was constructed with a surprisingly open framework, so you could see through its gears to the other side. High in the center of the vehicle was a lengthwise bar, with a bartender standing in the middle serving beer to the other passengers, a small counter surrounding him completely, and taps at hand for serving his “customers.” I could see the metal beer kegs mounted at the, er, stern of the vehicle. The passengers alternately crawled all over thing, walked along side, or sat on the built-in bar stools. The stools faced inward, as if one were sitting at any non-mobile bar. Seated at the bar with your elbows resting on the counter whilst nursing your beverage, you’d be facing sideways to the direction of travel. A photo of a similar contraption is shown here, though this is not exactly like the one I saw.
If you look closely at the picture, you can see that each stool (I think there were six to a side on the one I saw also), is equipped with pedals. No engine whatsoever. The whole monstrous thing was pedal powered. Beer powered, one might say, as the group of partying young men looked to be well lubricated and feeling it. Glasses of beer sat on the bar’s counter in receptacles designed to keep them from tipping over as the rig went ambling down the bumpy streets on it’s car-like wheels and tires. An arched canvas canopy shaded the whole affair and added a generally festive look. Imagine a ridiculous vehicle straying from Terry Gilliam’s imagination into your neighborhood, and you’ve pretty much got it.
I stared in amazement at this spectacle while Frank shook his head with a bemused look on his face. Suddenly, just as the party came abreast of our sidewalk tables, one of the young revelers who had dismounted the Pedal Monster staggered into oncoming traffic. A car struck and flipped him in a cartwheel motion, and up and over he went like a rag doll. He landed on the pavement and lay there for a moment, while people screamed and rushed about. He had bent in ways humans should not bend. I stayed put in my seat, figuring I would only offer first aid assistance if no one else could. Amazingly, Rag Doll Man’s mates had him up on his feet, if rather unsteadily, in less than a minute.
The driver of the car had slammed on his brakes immediately but his options were few in that narrow street. He was hemmed in on one side by parked cars and on the other by the Pedal Monster itself. Short of vertical take off, I don’t know what else he could have done. To him, it must have looked like Rag Doll Man appeared out of nowhere. He sure seemed to do his best to stop, tires screeching. I felt bad for him. He seemed shaken, and looked relieved to see the guy get up and walk around under his own steam.
The police were on the scene within five minutes. They spoke to the driver briefly and let him go, I was glad to see. The revelers milled about for a bit longer, being interviewed in turn by the officers. Somebody gave Rag Doll Man a cloth to clean the cuts on his face. He continued to walk around a bit, smiling while looking dazed and rather gimpy. Eventually the police got the whole gang back aboard, instructing them to follow one of the police vehicles. At least, that’s what I inferred based on how the now subdued Pedal Monster subsequently followed the police van closely around the corner and out of sight like a meek pony on a lead. I’m only inferring, since I did not understand a single word of the speaking and shouting that went on during the entire incident.
We at the tables surmised that Rag Doll Man’s state of inebriation was probably a blessing for the moment, keeping him loose and not too keenly aware that he’d narrowly missed sharing his next beer with the Grim Reaper. He was probably in shock, as well. I said I’d be willing to bet he’d be feeling very, very badly the next day. Frank mentioned that the party bikes, as they’re called, will likely be banned from Belgian streets because of the dangers of drunk people ambling about in traffic. I thought to myself, you’ve got to be kidding. There’s more than one of these contraptions? Hosting a beer bash on an open vehicle moving through city rush hour does seem sort of risky to me. No wonder I have never seen or even dreamed of such a thing in the States—I can’t imagine any self-respecting government official allowing citizens to have so much fun endangering themselves and others on American roadways.
After the uproar from the incident died down and peace returned to the neighborhood, I spent a couple more hours visiting with my new friends and enjoying the mild sunshine. Time flies when you are sitting in the sun drinking yummy tea and enjoying some excellent people watching with new friends. And all across the street from your house, no less. Heh.
Sel and Jennifer are both interested in future museum visits and shopping with me, and I’m looking forward to getting together with them again soon.
Next time, hopefully, without pedestrian casualties.