In these pages I met with an uncertain beginning, one intended for some six months earlier and at summer’s height, instead relegated to a quiet, grey morning before the onset of spring. Yet that intention had grown with the months, even surpassed the narrow bounds which I had initially set it, and for a time I was content to let it go, evolve as it would, with none too forceful a hand. As everyday French expressions and slang drowned each other out in second class, I took this beginning as its own end, the continuation of a spiral looping about on itself.
Two hours on from the beginning-end, I found myself in the halls of Paris’ northern station where I dutifully filled a blank landing card out, having become old hand at it. I sloughed my bags off and slid card and passport through the shallow trough at the window’s bottom, at which point the border control officer asked a few pointed questions and remarked that to each of my names there corresponded a county in England. For his benefit, I attributed the fact to my Anglophile father and tucked my travel documents away. All in all, I found him a likeable chap, given the sorts which one most often comes across in these offices in the Anglo-Saxon countries: operative concepts of inner, outer and the pure, inscribed within an authoritarian whole.
From my seat in this new wagon, I counted the cast off bottles and papers lining the packed gravel way below and made a mental note to ask whether someone did not pass from time to time to collect refuse and why I had never so much as caught a glimpse of this collector. I could only consider his a celestial body the movements of which, for the moment, eluded my higher senses. It remained to be seen whether I would this time make better sense of another such body, the city of London, the second time around.
To pass the two-hour journey, I diverted myself with a question, that of what, if anything, made a city beautiful. I supposed that one could just as likely make a case for the uniformity of a city like Bruges or the grandeur and sweeping architectural vision of Haussmanian Paris, the variety and color of forgotten Franco-German border towns or even the climate of villages farther south. Behind all of them, I thought to glimpse more economic and historical factors than I could count, factors which might make of beauty mere happenstance. For, as per a learned interlocutor of a conversation some months earlier, beauty seemed best embodied in those cities in which economic, administrative and cultural misfortune had aligned or, perhaps more accurately, miscarried so as to bring on a stark decline wherein progress and war alike left the city behind. So could one make sense of a Bruges.