words & images anna weber
The band Peter Kernel describes itself as a Canadian group from the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland that sings in English. They reminded me, on first listen, of a darker, more minimalist, less Welsh Los Campesinos—a mixture of spoken and sung lyrics, lively back and forth between the male and female leads, and hard-hitting rock.
That first listen came through a shared set of headphones in a compartment of a Belgian commuter rail, trundling south from the Gare du Midi in Brussels to La Louvière, Wallonia. Liz, a native Bruxelloise, was on the other bud of my headphones, watching my face, toes tapping in time to the music, waiting for my verdict of the album.
"I like it a lot," I proclaimed.
She beamed, having known I would. We'd be seeing Peter Kernel live in a couple of hours after debarking at the line's terminus. The town of Pont-à-Celles was having a two-stage festival to celebrate both spring and untapped musical talent, and Peter Kernel was one of its headliners.
"Where are we?" Liz asked suddenly as she changed the song on her iPod. "Are we close?" Neither of us had ever been to this section of Belgium.
"We just went through Tubize. A few more stops still."
The train slowed as it pulled into the station of La Louvière Centre. Most of the people in our car rose and exited. I turned to Liz. "Are you sure we were supposed to get off at La Louvière Sud and not Centre?"
"You were there, that's what the woman at the ticket booth said." Her voice didn't sound as sure. We watched the conductor dismount, peer up and down the platform, give the whistle around his neck three long huffs, and climb back into the wagon.
"Well, we're next." We grabbed our bags, triple-checked that we had our festival passes, and made our way to the door.
Belgium loves festivals. Every town has its own kermesse or ducasse that is celebrated on the feast day of the city's patron saint. The Ducasse d'Ath was my first, its highlight being a two-hour long parade of elaborate floats and wooden giants two stories high who danced with one another as part of a folkloric ritual. The country is also home to some of the biggest music festivals in Europe, such as Les Ardentes, Ghent Jazz Festival, Dour Festival, and the infamous Tomorrowland. A common question friends ask one another in early spring is, "Which festivals are you doing this year?" You don't just go to a music festival in Belgium—you do it.
Zooming in on Tomorrowland, however, means that you overlook the tiny, twenty-euro festivals, devoted to smaller European acts and run by the locals for the sheer pleasure of hosting a big party. One of those festivals is PaCRocK.
"It's not on here."
"What's not on here?"
"Pont-à-Celles. There's no train to Pont-à-Celles in the next hour."
"What?" I leaned over Liz's shoulder to squint at the paper timetable, yellowed and water-stained. She was right. "Nothing in the next two hours."
"Are you sure? Do you think the train station's called something other than Pont-à-Celles?"
"Let's go in and ask." We crossed the tracks to the one-room station and made our way to the booth.
The teller was on the phone, staring blankly at the ceiling and rocking his chair back and forth as he talked. When he saw us, he heaved a long sigh, said good-bye to the person on the other line, and dropped the phone in its cradle. He slanted his chair upright, laced his fingers, and leaned on his elbows to peer at us through his enormous glasses and the dirty windowpane. He reminded me of a Wallonian singer named Freddy Tougaux, famous for a viral song sung in a thick Belgian patois.
When he opened his mouth, his accent—French with a certain luxurious rollick—further affirmed my impression. "May I help you?"
"When is the next train to Pont-à-Celles?" Liz asked, leaning towards the grate where it was indicated she should speak.
"To Pont-à-Celles?" He stared at us, stared at the big clock behind us, stared at the electronic board indicating departures, stared at us again. "Pont-à-Celles! Ah, mais... mademoiselles, that train left maybe two minutes ago?"
"Excuse me?" We glanced at each other. "What are you talking about? We were told to change at La Louvière Sud for a train to Pont-à-Celles."
"Oh, no! No, no, no, no, no." He clicked his tongue as he shook his head back and forth on every 'no.' "You were supposed to change at La Louvière Centre. There's only five minutes to catch the train to Pont-à-Celles, meaning if you change at La Louvière Sud, you miss it."
"Excuse me?" Liz repeated, leaning closer, voice rising. "We were told explicitly at the Gare du Midi that we had to change at Sud. Were we not?" She whipped her head to face me. I nodded rapidly, wordlessly.
"Absolutely not, there's no possibility you would have made the train." He squinted at us, planting his palms firmly on his desk, fulminating disappointment.
Liz inhaled slowly and exhaled a high-pitched sound through her mouth. "Okay, well, great. When is the next one?"
"The next one?" This man was thinking that we were stupider and stupider by the second. He pushed his glasses up his face. "The next one's not for another two hours."
Two hours?! It was already 2:30 p.m. We'd miss half of the bands that we wanted to see. I watched anger rise red in Liz's cheeks. "Sir, is this a joke?" she exploded.
He straightened suddenly, glared haughtily at us down the bridge of his nose, corners of his wide mouth turning down. "Do I look like I am joking, miss?" he said slowly, barbing the consonants of every word.
He recommended that we check the bus schedule. Was he sure a bus went to Pont-à-Celles? Probably not. Where were we supposed to go? Maybe Manage? Where in God's name was Manage? Twenty kilometers from Pont-à-Celles. But, does he understand that we're not from here at all? That we need to be somewhere in Pont-à-Celles as soon as possible? What do we expect him to be able to do?
"Typical SNCB," Liz muttered, littering her complaints with curse words as she stormed away from the booth, marching outside to check the bus schedule anyway. I ran to catch up. We scanned the list of stops and didn't recognize a single one. "Oh, but there's Manage," Liz exclaimed, her tone dripping poison. A yellow and red TEC bus pulled up, let off two passengers, pulled away. There was nobody else in the half-empty parking lot. There was nobody in the station aside from the teller. We stared at each other for what felt like hours. Now what?
"Maybe," I said abruptly, "we should take a taxi."
"What taxi? Do you seriously think we'll find a taxi out here?"
I pointed. A black cab was pulling up to the curb, dropping off a passenger. Babbling at the same time, we managed to explain our situation. He shook his head slowly at the mention of Pont-à-Celles——never heard of it. Our faces must have fallen hard. He immediately reached for his GPS and typed in the name. "Here it is. It would be about thirty euros to get there. Would you want to go for that?" Did we have another choice?
Our driver was remarkably merry and up for the adventure. He sympathized with us as we griped about the SNCB's incompetence, laughed when Liz imitated the teller's cold insistence that he wasn't joking. "You're going to a festival, huh? That's crazy, I'm from around here and I don't think I've ever heard of it. PaCRock? What kind of music is it? Is it like Tomorrowland, or..."
Liz snorted. "No, it's not like Tomorrowland."
We got off the highway and found ourselves on the one-and-a-half lane country roads that define driving in the Hainaut region. The forests and fields were on the cusp of spring, lime-green fuzz dusting the tips of tree branches, fruit tree buds beginning to unfurl in pastel palettes of rose and peach, the smell of manure and moist earth wafting through car's open windows. Sunshine was valiantly fighting its way through the masses of reeling rain clouds; every now and then, thirty seconds of a furious shower would come pouring down, stopping as abruptly as it had started.
The landscape reminded me of the countryside that surrounded my old host family's house further north, the first place I'd ever lived in Belgium. I leaned my forehead against the window, remembering bike rides, long walks, early Sunday mornings, afternoons on the terrace.
"They must be wondering what the hell a taxi's doing all the way out here," the driver chuckled as we passed a group of farmers around a stalled tractor. We'd turned a corner and braked sharply; a man was leading a skittish donkey directly down the middle of the road. We moved to one side and he moved to the other, scratching the animal behind one ear, mouth moving as he whispered calming words.
"Surreal," Liz said, laughing, as she rolled down her window and we waved. The driver tapped two short honks; the man's face split into a wide grin as he waved back.
"It looks like we're almost there, girls." We were driving on a long bridge over rows of train tracks.
"Should be right next to the station in a big park." The car turned the corner, pulled into the station, and parked in front of the entrance. The parking lot was empty. We didn't hear any music. Only three people lingered on the sidewalk, thumbs scrolling on their phones. I noticed the signs stating the name of the stop along the platforms. "Um, Liz—"
She was already halfway out of the car. "What?"
"I think we're in Luttre."
"What?" She looked around. "Oh, come on."
The driver was looking at us expectantly, waiting for payment. "Sir, we're so sorry—this isn't Pont-à-Celles."
"What?" He looked around, then rolled down the passenger window and leaned forward, gesturing to the pedestrian standing closest to us. "Hey, you! Sir? Where are we?"
The man came forward, lowering his phone, eying us curiously. "Luttre. Why?"
"Where's the train station in Pont-à-Celles?"
He stared at us, stared at the driver, stared at us. "There is no station in Pont-à-Celles."
We sat in silence, stunned, the man still leaning through the window, hands on his knees. A single moment followed this extraordinary and unbelievable proclamation, extending endlessly, a moment in which I questioned whether or not we were in a movie, in which I wondered whether the festival was real, whether Pont-à-Celles was real, whether we were real, whether the day had slipped from one dimension of time and space to another without our realizing it.
Liz did not seem to suffer from the same mental breakdown. She swore and pulled out her phone, bringing up her own GPS. "Sir?" she addressed the driver. "Do you mind going another three kilometers?"
We did find it—and we found a microcosm of the entire country proliferating within its fences.
The two stages were tucked behind a large church in the parochial pasture, demonstrating the simultaneous, genuine respect and casual irreverence Belgians have for religion. Two beer tents were competing with one another to see which sold the most, chanting "Des clients! Des clients! Des clients!" and whooping triumphantly every time someone asked for a tall cold one.
A pack of boys—no older than twelve—wandered from stage to stage with their hands in their pockets, solemnly nodding their heads in time with the music. Another gaggle, this one of of teenagers dressed in camo and distressed denim, chain-smoked cigarettes and sent each other Snapchats. Pot-bellied men, drunk and jolly by 6 p.m., devoured pain saucisses and argued over the on-going Charleroi-Standard soccer match. Hipsters in plaid and Converse languished on the fringes, mouths pursed, arms crossed. Flemish and French jumbled together, rare for a town so far from Flanders.
Liz introduced me to different members of the music scene in Brussels and the surrounding area—small record labels, booking groups, bands performing, bands just here to watch and have a good time.
We did see Peter Kernel perform, among many others. We laughed when Bed Rug begged the audience for a joint, applauded the fan who rolled one and tossed it onto the stage. We howled with laughter when the members of Mountain Bike came on stage clad only in boxers and basketball jerseys. We danced to La Jungle and Quadrupède and, when the skies finally burst at the end of the night, we stood under a tent at the back of the main stage, watching the stage lights flicker on the pouring rain as Maybeshewill ripped through the final set we'd see that night.