So this is the pandemic. Be still, be very still. Try and hide, or shrink as small as possible. Keep silent, do not have an opinion. On anything. Remember and create and feed yourself memories of how life used to be and one day soon will once more be that way.
I so ache to travel again and drink beer in another country, to walk into a bar and ask for a flinty Saison or a rich, ample Svetlý Ležák or a brooding Doppelbock. I haven’t even been to London never mind the European mainland. But then beer can stroke and amplify the imagination and so after two bottles each of Orval and Westmalle Tripel I know that I want to travel to Belgium again. But I cannot. So for now, all I have is a dreamlike conceit that is enough to take me across the Channel.
I remember the bustle of early morning crowds at St Pancras, the to-and-fro of strangers, none of them masked, and all of whom had journeys in mind. To Luton perhaps, to catch a plane to Prague (another place I want to return to when I can). Or perhaps it was to Paris, or Brussels and then beyond?
So here is one of those things that I miss, the sense of anticipation that comes with the start of a journey, the rattle of the carriages on the railway line, but then they don’t rattle anymore do they? It’s the hiss and whoosh perhaps of the train, the barely perceptible sway within the carriage and then we are below the English Channel and emerging into France and after the gritty rock’n’roll of Lille it’s to Brussels we are bound.
Expect I don’t think I will be in Brussels or any other Belgian town any day soon given the quagmire we have fallen into with Covid-19. The grand plans for visiting breweries and bars, seeing friends and fellow writers, exchanging anecdotes, oh and drinking lots of beers and exceeding the levels of excitement over several days, those grand plans are stuck on the shelf like a series of serious novels that one day you plan to read, but not just yet.
There is a half-realised collection of plans and memories. I have created a plan to take the coastal tram that stretches down from close to the Dutch border to the French one; taking several days and trying to discover what a coastal Belgian beer culture is like. Or is there one?
It’s a fancy and fantasy on my part that a journey without maps and expectations will lead me into serendipitous moments of beer life; the bar that has no page in any guidebook and only has a small beer selection but still manages to pass on a flavour of Belgian beer life; the park bench upon which I sat (not with a can of strong beer I hasten to add) and jotted down notes on the people who passed; the interview with a brewer whose quotes were the building blocks for my ever growing and never complete understanding of Belgian beer. These are memories, good memories.
I can remember more. The taste of Stella Artois when I was 15 and I reassured my mother that it was perfectly legal for me to drink beer in the bar of the small hotel where we were staying. I can’t remember the taste, but can recall the feeling of adulthood it gave me. Stella and I though parted in the early 1990s following a brief relationship with exported stubby bottles in a Crouch End off-licence in 1988. When I visited the brewery several years ago, one of the brewmasters who took a group of us (judges at the Brussels Beer Challenge) around said he wished it was still dry-hopped. Then very quickly pleaded with us that we hadn’t heard that. But we had.
So in these times of stillness, it is to the bottle I turn. I pour an Orval or a Westmalle Tripel or perhaps a Zennebier and my imagination immediately takes flight and I am travelling once more. As I will do again.