On a Sunday in the summer of 2010, on a bike trip in the south east of Belgium, Anya and I stopped for the night in the city of Diest. Late in the afternoon we went for a walk around it’s beautiful old centre dating from the early Middle Ages.
Everything was closed and the streets deserted except for one place: a small shrine cum museum. It was over 400 years old and dedicated to a young man who in the early 17th century had walked to Rome on a pilgrimage. It was a hard journey; on the way he was attacked by a bear and badly injured; he had kept going, only to be robbed and beaten by thieves. Recovered, though badly injured, he had continued the journey until he reached The Holy City, where he had died shortly afterwards.
His name was Jan Berchmans (pronounced ‘yan bergmanz’) and he would have been forgotten, slipped into the mists of history, had not been for his being canonized by the Pope. This changed everything. For centuries afterwards, Diest became the destination of pilgrims from all over Belgium. Saint Jan Berchmans was worshipped en masse with ceremonies led by the local Bishops.
In recent times however, Saint Jan Berchmans had been relegated to obscurity.
The caretaker of the shrine was probably fairly typical of the prevailing attitudes:
‘Why he was made a saint? He hadn’t performed any miracles. All he did was walk to Rome. These days you can drive to Rome in a day! The Vatican would probably like to annul his sainthood, but it can’t really, it would set a bit of precedent….’
The memory of visiting the shrine of Saint Jan slipped into the past, lost amongst a welter of other travel experiences, until October this year when it suddenly surfaced again, this time in a very different area of Europe….
We met them near a van selling chips – or as the Americans call them, ‘French fries’.
Bram and Kristin. They were on a bike trip and so were we. It was a warm summer’s day and everyone was outside.
Behind the van was a long, wide canal. On both sides of the canal were bike trails and there was constant stream of bikes moving in opposite directions. Now and then, barges passed, sending waves of backwash slapping against the steep banks.
They were a similar age to us – late 50’s. Kristin had shoulder length blond hair (natural, with a few stands of grey) and Bram had a crop of black hair and a boyish face. Each of them were physically in good shape.
They sat down on the same bench seat as us eating chips and dunking them in mayonnaise. Like we were. After we were finished we made small talk but before we knew it, the small talk became big talk.
I was responsible for that – and got more than I bargained for……
When Anya and I rode our bikes up to the high, wrought-iron gates of a mansion, we did a double-take.
One glimpse through the gates underlined the point: a long drive of white gravel, a wide grassed area either side it bordered by meticulously tended gardens and in the distance, backed against a forest – a series of white, rectangular structures, half concrete and half glass. Inside them: stair cases seemingly suspended in mid-air, lamps and high ceilings, paintings on walls, rooms with statues and ultra-modern furnishings. Outside, on the upper levels, there were long glass balconies. This wasn’t a house, a home; it was a modernist palace, a place of light, space, perfection – and money, vast amounts of money.
Parked in the drive was a top of the range BMW and a Volvo.
On one of the high brick pillars either side of the gate was an intercom and beneath it, a brass plate bearing the names ‘B. and K. Vermeulen’.
This was the place alright.
Anya pressed the button on the intercom – and a woman’s voice – answered.
It was Kristin.
There was an audible ‘click’ and the massive gates swung open and we pushed our bikes over the white gravel.
The journey up the drive, pushing our heavily laden bikes over what seemed like an interminable stretch of deep gravel, seemed to last forever. We had a long day behind us battling against strong headwinds.
We came to the large garage where the two cars were parked.
‘I’ve spent the afternoon working in the garden’ Kristin explained.
She spoke softly, in something just above a whisper.
Only later did we realise she was almost as tired as we were.
She led us into the garage and indicated an area off to the right where we could leave our bikes and said: ‘You can get your stuff out now if you like and I’ll show you to your room.’
As we followed Kristin and entered the house, I was expecting to be met by space and light. This however was on the top story of what was a multi-level building, something which we had got no inkling of looking at it from the gate.
We entered a wide windowless passage illuminated by lights recessed into the ceiling; on our right was a wide staircase. We followed Kristin as she ascended the carpeted steps. At the top of the stairs, there was a wide passage and a number of doors; we could have been in a hotel. She opened one of the doors on the right and we followed her along another passage, hot, sweaty, and struggling with our plastic bags.
Then she opened a door to the room that we were to stay for the night.
As soon as we entered the room, we were taken aback.
The ceiling was at least 4 metres high. There was a low, wide bed on a wooden frame – a futon – a chest of drawers and a few cupboards. It was disarmingly simple. Three of the walls had no windows. The fourth wall, at the end of the bed was glass, from top to bottom. It was filled with a view of trees; a forest.
We had never been in a room even remotely like this.
In reaction to our expressions of surprise and admiration, Kristin explained:
‘We love trees…it’s one of the reasons we chose this place to build our house next to a national park….’
Indeed. Trees were a passion for Bram and Kristin. They’d spent time in Scandinavia and the U.K. staying in special holiday homes constructed in the middle of forests.
Kristin talked about ‘tree holidays’.
I’d heard of elite kinds of eco-travel, but ‘tree holidays’ was a new one to me.
No doubt they were very expensive.
We put our bags down next to the bed and followed Kristin downstairs.
She wanted to show us where we would have breakfast next morning and this was quite a journey, especially given our tiredness. We had to make quite an effort to remember the way there.
We eventually reached a long wide room divided into two separate areas; in the first area, there were paintings and sculptures and works of art, all of it modern; in the centre of this area were two couches and a coffee table. Further on, in the next area, was a room with full length windows on two sides and a view of a tended gardens, trees and a waterfall; in the middle of this area was a large, heavy wooden table and four chairs, a stove and fridge and glass cupboards.
I was battling to make the connection between the two people we had met next to the van selling chips and mayonnaise – and dressed in loose, baggy clothes – and this outrageous display of opulence.
Kristin asked us if we wanted a drink and we said we did, although really, we didn’t, we just wanted to unpack our stuff and have a shower.
We drank green tea at the wooden table and chatted with Kristin; sometimes it was difficult to keep our eyes from straying into the garden and the waterfall and the pond; it was just so green and manicured and quite lovely.
I got the impression that Kristin was at a bit at a loose end.
Bram was a lawyer; he ran a legal firm employing 20 people. He was successful and obviously making an awful lot of money. Kristin was learning Italian; she spent a lot of time working in the garden; she was involved in a church based organisation devoted to assistance projects in Africa.
That evening, I went to sleep at about 8 pm.
Anya stayed up, reading.
When I woke up at 2 am, Anya was deep in sleep.
The trees were lit by a half moon. It was an incredible sight.
I lay there staring, feeling as if I was on a raft floating through the night. At one point, I saw something fly passed: an owl or a bat.
I was conscious of experiencing something quite unique, something reserved for those with lots of money.
My thoughts drifted.
It was amazing to lie there in bed and peer into the depths of a night forest and easy to see the attraction of a spending time in a tree house.
I’d never experienced anything like this before, which was why I was experiencing it now so intensely.
But what if I lived here and saw it every night?
How long would it take before it lost its magic and became almost mundane?
By the time I woke the following morning – at 7.30, it was time to get ready and go for breakfast.
We had arranged to have breakfast at 8.
Finding our way to the dining area was a trial.
We took a few wrong turnings and in the process, got an inkling of how little of this enormous house we had seen. Out there somewhere was far more house.
What did they do with all this space? How much house did you need?
Finally, we got there (and I realised too that there must have been at least one other dining area in the house somewhere).
When we walked into the dining area, I did a double-take.
Bram was wearing a dark blue suit and tie; Kristin was wearing an expensive dress and wearing a necklace and ear rings. It was a Saturday morning.
They were quick to explain: they had to leave to go to a funeral later in the morning.
Initially the conversation was hesitant, but it didn’t take long before it became lively and voluble – and furthermore, lasted for nearly 3 hours. Politics didn’t even get a passing mention.
Bram and Kristin asked us about how long we had been riding together. We normally don’t make a point of speaking about ourselves but Bram and Kristin kept asking questions and in between many other subjects popping during our conversation, they returned to it.
The crux of what we told them was this:
We began riding in The Netherlands in 1980 (and got married during a bike ride around The Netherlands and Flanders); thereafter didn’t do much riding, besides a short stint in China in the early 1990’s. Most of time, over the course of around 20 years, we went trekking in the Indian Himalaya following villagers’ traditional trails and carrying all our own supplies. When the trails began to vanish with the Indian government filling the mountains with roads and the dramatic increase in organised tourism, we went back to bike riding: between 2003 – 06 we did long bike rides over the back roads of South Australia and Victoria, taking along our tent, sleeping bags as well as water and supplies: the bike trips in Australia were a continuation of trekking in the Indian Himalaya as it were. In later years, during our stays in The Netherlands, we did long bike rides in The Netherlands, Flanders, Germany and Denmark.
It was when we asked Bram and Kristin about their bike riding experiences that they came alive, became different people.
Bram and Kristin, reliving magic moments of their lives.
Every year, Bram took a month off work and he and Kristin went on bike riding trips. The same people who could afford to go anywhere in the world and in style – who could afford to take a few days off and fly to a tree house – went bike riding together. They had done bike trips in many different countries including Turkey, Italy, Spain, Germany, Denmark, and of course, Flanders and The Netherlands. This year they were set to go to France.
They told stories about the adventures and the hardships they had experienced in all sorts of situations and countries and as they talked, I noticed a transformation occurring between Bram and Kristin. They were full of stories about their trips and in the telling of these stories, each of them became very enthusiastic, like two teenagers. They recounted their experiences and periodically looked at each other as if it was for the first time. Kristin underwent a remarkable metamorphosis from the woman I had met on the afternoon previous; she laughed and joked and couldn’t get the words out of her mouth fast enough. As for Bram; it was hard to imagine him as a man in his early 60’s running business employing 20 people. He was like a boy talking about a great film he had seen or an exciting book he had read.
Up until we had breakfast with Bram and Kristin that morning I had kept wondering to myself: why in the world would two people living in such opulence want to put up two unknown bike riders, hailing from the opposite end of the social economic break-down, for the night?
Now I knew: because it gave them the chance to relive precious moments of their lives and furthermore, to build on the hope that there would be more like it.
After 30 years of marriage and three children and the long years of hard work that went into building up a business, Bram and Kristin, their lives too often lived apart, in separate hemispheres, had found a means of reconciliation and renewal.
The one month a year reminded them how much they loved each other.
Just before Bram and Kristin left to attend the funeral, Bram said:
‘Years ago, when I first started out, I worked alone, from home. We were living in the outskirts of Antwerp. The work started coming in and I needed to employ others to help me. We had an extension built on to our house. Kristin did a lot of the administrative work. We had 3 children and we wanted to be close to them, to share everything together, work and family. But I kept getting more work and eventually I had to get a proper business premises. We bought land in a rural area and had this house built. Kristin stopped working and devoted her life to raising the kids. We became a conventional couple.
I never thought I would one day be running a business. I wasn’t ambitious. I wanted to earn enough to provide for my family. One thing led to another. There wasn’t much choice in it you see. In business, you either grow or you go broke. If you refuse work, the clients go elsewhere. I like what I am doing. I enjoy the work. But I’m getting on. I don’t want to work until I’m dead.
The funeral we are going to this morning is for a good friend who was a couple of years younger than us. He had all sorts of plans about what he was going to do when he was retired. He never made it. I don’t want to do that. I know that it’s time to move on.
What do I do with myself? I’ve always worked. The kids have grown up and got careers and families. We don’t need this place anymore. It too big. We’ll sell it and downsize.
I want to ride my bike. That’s a start. I want to find countries in the world where Kirstin and I can ride our bikes.
Australia sounds good. Maybe we’ll see you two sometime.’
One night in a small hotel in Flanders, exhausted after a long bike ride, I turned on the TV and began surfing channels – not because I expected to find anything worth watching, but rather, because I was too tired to read.
Irrespective of which country you’re in these days, TV is rubbish: Game shows (everyone laughing), soaps, ‘reality’ TV, blitz advertising.
No wonder Netflix has become so popular.
Turning on the TV that evening was an act of desperation. I was in an almost catatonic state and had time on my hands – that is, until I could justify to myself crawling into bed and passing out.
I surfed channels a while, and then –
On one channel, I saw a black and white photo on the screen – and it caught my attention immediately.
It was a great photo – of homeless poor blacks somewhere in a big city in America.
The photo clearly dated from some time in the past, late 1950’s/1960’s, was my guess.
Then came more black and white photos, equally as incredible. More scenes from an America from a few decades ago.
There I was, exhausted after a long bike ride, sitting in a hotel room surfing the TV and then suddenly finding myself wide awake as a series of utterly mesmerising black and white photos appeared before me.
I wondered who the photographer was.
In time, I learnt that her name was Vivian Maier.
I had never heard of her.
Yet she had worked for many years, from the 1950’s until the late 1980’s.
She had taken thousands of photos.
As with any kind of art, tastes differ when it comes to photography.
What one person might consider brilliant, another person might dislike.
I had very definite ideas about photography and this was especially so with respect to black and white photography. In the past, I’d spent a lot of time in a dark room developing and printing black and white photos which I had taken during trips to India and China. I enlarged the photos and framed them and held exhibitions. During that time, I had looked at a lot of black and white photos taken by recognised ‘greats’ including Capa, Adams, Walker Evans, Man Ray, Cartier- Bresson and McCullin.
The one thing which remained from my years of immersion in the world of black and white photography was the simple conviction that a good black and white photograph has an artistic power which colour photography can never match.
And looking at the photos of Vivian Maier, I knew I was looking at a great black and white photographer.
How was it possible, I wondered, that I’d never heard of her and never seen any of her work during the time I was a black and white photography fanatic?
I turned the volume up and listened carefully to the Flemish (which is the same as Dutch, but is spoken with a very different accent).
In time, the explanation to this puzzle emerged.
It was as incredible as her photographs.
Vivian Maier never made any attempt to exhibit or publicise her work.
She took photos, lots and lots of them, and stored them away in suitcases.
Over the years, the suitcases piled up.
She knew that she was taking brilliant photos. Yet incredibly, she felt no need to win any kind of recognition.
I was flabbergasted at the very idea of it.
I wanted to know more about this extraordinary, unknown genius.
There was no chance I was going to change the channel.
The Flemish programme was based upon on an American documentary which was made years after Maier’s death (it can be downloaded from the net). It was based on interviews with people who had known her and or at least, observed her from close-up. She had few friends and wasn’t motivated to make any. Her great obsession was privacy.
A good part of the documentary relied upon interviews with people who had employed Maier – or been raised by her. These interviews were alternately moving and amusing. They were, by the standards of the contemporary media, long ones, giving people the time to reminisce, to bare their souls; a stark contrast with the cut and paste so commonplace in the media today.
This was a quality documentary.
Vivian Maier was an intelligent, eccentric and reclusive woman. The word ‘eccentric’ doesn’t adequately capture her sheer un-conventionality, her strangeness, and her individuality. She was one of those people who in her own private way redefined the idea of what it means to be a human being and how to live a life.
Yet all of this only came to light after she died and her photos and negatives came to light as it were.
Born into a poor French immigrant family and raised in poverty, she never tried to ascend the socio-economic ladder and ‘better herself’. Her interest in material possessions extended as far a Rolleiflex camera and film. She worked as a child minder for middle class Americans; children were the only human beings she could relate to, although another consideration for her was this was a job which left her with plenty of free time.
It was a better alternative to working in factories.
If at any point she had allowed others to view her photos, she would have become a recognised artist and would have been able to live a better and more comfortable life – yet mysteriously she never seems to have considered this option.
Vivian Maier had no interest in conventional ideas of success.
She chose for anonymity.
She lived alone in small apartments with a heavy security lock on the door. When required to fill in her name on official documents, she often wrote the wrong name or deliberately misspelt it; when people asked her what she did for a living, she told them she was a spy – something which might have got her into trouble during the Cold War when America was paranoid of traitors and spies. Most people wrote her off as a crank.
And yet her description of herself as a ‘spy’ was uncannily prescient.
Vivian Maier was indeed a kind of spy: someone moving around incognito, chronicling the human condition in all its strange splendour, moving moments, and daunting tragedy. This after all is the essence of great black and white photographers, this portrayal, in stark and moving ways, of the human condition; this chronicling of life and history through powerful images which break through our natural tendency towards indifference.
And as far as this chronicling of the human condition went, Vivian Maier used other means besides her Rolleiflex. She collected newspapers – thousands of them. She knew what was going on politically and she knew about the widespread reality of poverty and hardship – the shadow side of the American Dream.
Vivian Maier was a pioneer – a feminist, an individualist, a progressive – as well as a great artist.
And seeing the documentary about her was a rare find on a TV system with endless choices as far as the number of channels went – but precious few when it came to content.