BRUSSELS (VN) — I find myself on the phone with a Belgian police commander. He is not amused, not compassionate. Not anything.
“Are you living in Belgium?” he asks.
“No, sir. I am not,” I answer. “I am a journaliste.”
Sometimes being a journalist gets you off the hook. Sometimes, it gets that hook jammed deeper into your gills.
Gills full of sand. Heart falling. Head a balloon.
About 20 minutes prior to this moment, The Belgian sky continued its dreary march from silver to grey and the cold crystalized the air into not snow nor rain but prisms of ice.
It was cold so thick it caused organizers to announce just a few minutes prior that they were shortening Ghent-Wevelgem in hopes of showing the riders they had hearts that weren’t as frozen as the northern European ground, though they still had those 6,000 VIP meals that needed serving. It was so cold, Belgians were apologizing for the weather.
I tried to shorten my neck inside my insufficient suggestion of a down coat while I left the press conference and walked into the alley to fetch the car and drive to the inn, 20 minutes away. I’d been graced with a rental upgrade at the Brussels airport, a new BMW that gave me an uptown feeling every time I saw its nostrils flare when I hit the unlock button on the keychain.
Nothingness in the alley. Only air where the car used to be.
Stolen? Feeling like an anchor. Air sucked out of lungs.
Towed? Couldn’t be. I’m not that stupid.
I see a tiny, cracking sticker that wasn’t visible to me two hours prior, probably because I wasn’t looking for it. It’s stuck to a banged up old sliding door, an apparent garage for the house with busted out windows that now grins at me like sinister jack-o-lanterns.
I call the number on the rusty, green sliding door. I get as far as two rings and then my phone dies. Naturally, the charger is in the car.
Options are dwindling with the daylight.
I walk into the hotel where the press conference had been held minutes earlier but, inexplicably, a wedding reception has replaced the pre-race meeting. I catch sight of the Ghent-Wevelgem organizers. A very tall, very efficient-looking man asks how I am doing.
“Not good, sir,” I answer. “My car’s been towed. And my phone is dead.” If he could hear my heart, it is beating, in Morse Code, S-A-V-E-M-E.
A furrowed brow. He looked across the hotel, through the wedding, to a short, dense man who is apparently quite powerful in this town. This man had lost his phone, borrows another man’s phone, and begins calling all of Belgium.
“He knows everyone,” the tall, efficient man says. “He’ll find your car.”
Relief like water falling over me. More phone calls. No English. He looks at me a few times, my eyes surely showing an adopt-me look upon my face. “GHENT-WEVELGEM,” he says crisply into the phone. “GHENT. WEEEVELGEM.”
I find myself nodding, saying, “Ghent-Wevelgem” in chorus.
It’s at this point I speak with the policeman, who informs me that, yes, I was parked in front of a garage. I am further informed by the tall man next to me that the car has been found, and that the fee has been halved, which is still going to be something in the neighborhood of $250, and they’re very sorry about the fact I have to pay at all. They are displeased something has gotten in the way of someone upon the raft of bike racing in Belgium. Very, very sorry. Usually in this life I find I’m the one apologizing.
The organizer himself drives me to a garage, which is closed. He walks up to a house with the lights on, and asks a question, using his hands. Miraculously, a woman knows where another garage is, and we arrive, as the man is closing shop.
Only in Belgium would the organizer track a cycling journalist’s car down, drive him to it, and yell about the fees not being waived completely. I’m dropped off, but then made to run one mile each way to the nearest ATM, as I only have 100 Euros in my pocket. I am running but I am laughing because things sort of like this happen, and they’re funny later, I tell myself.
This is the managed chaos. The endless stream of things that can go wrong and do go wrong yet one never expects them to go wrong when traveling here covering bike racing. As inside as we can be at times, we’re permanent outsiders here as Americans interloping in a European sport.
The car is retrieved; away I go. A restaurant on the edge of Oudenaarde stays open late because I am here covering the bike races and probably because I look like a kicked puppy. They’re happy to share the pasta they say is the best, and the beer as well, and that’s the best, too. The bill is less than it should be. I am warm and I am grateful to be in their company even if I don’t know what they’re saying.
Two weeks later, I notice someone has hit the front bumper of the car (what the hell is it about this car?) enough to scratch it in a few places. I also notice we don’t have rental insurance, and that this may very well be an issue, as the car is/was new.
Tuesday morning, we pull into the Brussels airport parking garage, praying for a power outage. We park the car, and the rental attendant comes out to greet us. He notices the press sticker from Paris-Roubaix atop the windshield, and asks that we remove it. He watches as I scrape it away, never looking at the scratch at his feet. He wonders what I thought about the races, if I enjoyed my trip.
“Brilliant,” I told him. “Paris-Roubaix was my favorite race, ever.” He seems to accept this. I should have mentioned Flanders. We’re in Belgium. How could I not mention the Ronde. “And Flanders? What a ride.”
He nods. This is better. He nods again. “It’s our life,” he said, beaming, with his hands on his hips, the pride in his country’s cycling upon his face.
He soon returns to his thorough inspection of each whisper of a scratch on the minivan one space over from the fated BMW.
I sneak off, lucky in so many ways, wiser now in others. We’re all bound by this bike racing thing, in one way or another, here. And as long as I’m on the Belgian raft, I’ll make it out alive.