‘The Flemish have got nothing to complain about. They’re economically much better off than the French speakers in the south….How would autonomy improve the lot of the Flemish?’
When Anya and I rode our bikes up to the high, wrought-iron gates of a mansion, I wondered what was going on.
This couldn’t possibly be the right place, I told her.
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 old, tall trees – a series of white, rectangular structures, half concrete and half glass. Even from behind the gates you could see stair cases seemingly suspended in mid-air, lamps suspended from 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.
No, this couldn’t be the place. We’d got something wrong.
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.
I felt as if we were entering a strange land. Which we were.
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’ she 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. Instead we found ourselves in a circular area illuminated by lights recessed into the ceiling; it was a kind of intersection which offered access to three passages going in different directions. On our right was a long wide staircase. Near the base of the staircase was a polished wooden counter and behind it a coffee machine, an electric jug, glasses, a range of teas and coffees, and an inbuilt fridge; further back, deeper in the recess was a toilet and bathroom. Kristin showed us these before leading us up the staircase. Each step was lined with carpet. There was a balustrade either side. 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 left and we followed her inside, hot, sweaty, and struggling with our plastic bags.
As soon as we entered the room, we were taken aback.
The ceiling was a good 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 and nowhere near as luxurious as one might have expected in a place like this.
The view was the luxury item.
The wall opposite the doorway consisted mostly of glass. There was a view of trees; there were long trunks and a profusion of dark green leaves.
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….’
Trees were a passion for Bram and Kristin it seemed. They’d spent time in Sweden 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 panier bags down next to the bed and followed Kristin downstairs.
She wanted to show us where we would have breakfast next morning.
This was quite a journey, and being so tired, we had to make quite an effort to remember the way there.
After descending the stairs, we turned into a passage on our right, then shortly afterwards followed a short flight of stairs on our left and then followed another passage on our right until we came to 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 window 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. 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.
I thought about wealth.
Most people envied the super-rich – which is why the lives of the super-rich occupied the centre stage of so many films and best-selling pulp fiction novels not to mention the newspapers and gossip magazines.
Speaking for myself, the super- rich didn’t interest me, let alone incite envy. At one level of my thinking, which I suppose could be described as ‘political’, I could never follow the logic of any kind of social economic arrangement where an elite lived in opulence whilst a great mass of people at the other end of society lived in deprivation. The nations I was familiar with, which formed a blueprint for ‘good societies’ – I mean to the extent that a ‘good society’ was attainable – were The Netherlands and Denmark. I believed in an egalitarian version of a capitalist society based on an extensive welfare state combined with a range of liberal freedoms.
Beyond this political level, was a deeper philosophical one. I didn’t envy the super rich because I didn’t want to live their lives. I shouldn’t say that I was ‘content’ or ‘happy’ with my own life (happiness, as far as I could see, was a slippery concept) so much as inspired to live my life; aware of being on a journey and keen to continue it. This part of my psychology had its origins in the years that Anya and I had spent travelling, with all our possessions on our backs. I believed in what may be loosely described as the simple life, a life with as few material attachments as possible; I guess this was my own kind of Buddhism, albeit one based upon a life of constantly going somewhere rather than living in a monastery or a cave. It was only by staying clear of attachments, that one was free, truly free, to keep moving, changing one’s place of residence and experiencing an interesting and intense life. At the same time, it was undeniably true that one needed money to be free; without it, there was no freedom at all. It was a matter of finding a balance.
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? Why did they need it?
What was the point of it?
To own a place like this – and all the possessions inside it – seemed to me like having a ball and chain permanently fastened to your ankle.
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 tree house in Sweden – 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 support 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 its time to move on. What then? 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.’