I’ve been wanting to go to Antwerp for years. Not just because the name of the city appeared several times in the seminal Box of Documents, but because it’s also the home of cutting-edge floral design. Clothing design and interior design, too.
It’s a lovely city, a blend of Dutch and French, with graying buildings and a lively spirit, and of course, good beer. And mussels. And frites. And Belgian endive, called “witloof,” braised with ham and covered with cream sauce and served with a side of the most divine mashed potatoes. And chocolates… But I am getting ahead of myself.
Antwerp is the city of Rubens. He set up his studio here in 1609 — the beginning of the 12 year’s truce. (More on that in the next post). He painted altarpieces for the Antwerp Cathedral, which assured his success as Flanders’ leading painter. We toured his house, an Italian villa in a northern clime.
We also visited the home of his patron, a man named Nicholas Rocksox. Our hotel, small and completely charming in its simplicity, was on the same street as the Rocksox musuem. Here’s a view from our window.
Genealogically speaking, we were in Antwerp because of a picture in the box. Titled “Boulevard en Beurs,” it had taken my fancy in a major way the first time I saw it. The paper had weakened along fold lines; I had to tape the rectangles together to get a sense of the whole view. I’m attaching in in a slightly reduced size, which loses some of the grandeur but fits in my scanner!
This picture haunted me — I even wrote a poem about it. Not one of my best, a little too Elizabeth Bishop-y. I’ll post it.
Anyway, once in Antwerp, we set out to look for the Bourse — the oldest Bourse in Europe, by the way. After some wandering through rain showers, we found it. But it looked nothing like the picture. It was completely surrounded by other buildings, making it nearly impossible to see the architecture.
I pulled out my document, and we stared. Some young men were stringing Halloween lights across the street (the Bourse is now a party space!) and we asked them if this was the Bourse. They looked at the picture, and started to laugh.
It seems that “Ontwerp” is not a strange spelling of Antwerp, but rather the Dutch word for “designed.” And the building I thought was the Antwerp bourse turns out to be the Amsterdam train station. The design, though approved by the Amsterdam city fathers, was never built.
We had a good laugh together, but I still don’t know why this picture was kept for so long, and whether it was saved by grandmother or grandfather.
Grandmother did receive mail in Antwerp — she was there when she went back to the Old Country in 1900 with her four oldest children — Pauline, Theodore, Nellie and Albert. They sailed back to New York from Antwerp, on the S.S. Kensington, leaving Belgium on Oct. 6 and arriving in the city on Oct. 17. The thought of that voyage with four small children (they were 9, 7, 6, and 3 years old!) is sobering.
The address on Offerende Straat, located not far from the Gare Centrale and the Zoo, is in a slightly iffy neighborhood these days. [Note the family habit of cutting stamps, and postmarks, from envelopes. When my mother died, I discovered that she had thrown out every letter I had ever written her, and saved the envelopes, with the stamps!] The card, from C.M. Kool, was most likely from her cousin, who lived in The Hague, and about whom I know very little.
A few more notes on Antwerp tomorrow.