Something has been on my mind since last summer. A chance meeting with a man who gave me a new outlook on life with one, simple sentence. While on vacation, friends and I briefly met this stranger; too briefly to even ask his name. We shared only a tiny moment of a moment it seems; I don’t even remember what he looked like. He said three words to us, through an elevator doorway as the metal edges inched towards each other, separating us forever. I don’t mean to be overly dramatic, but this small slice of time changed my life. At the top of a cathedral in the middle of Brussels, on my last day of vacation, I believe I saw the very best of humanity and learned what it means to travel. I experienced something so profound in such a random place. My world and my heart were broken wide open with a new idea that I hope to carry with me forever.
The Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Brussels was something I just did not want to see. There was no reason, really, nothing specific. I simply didn’t have a burning desire to go. I was trying to be open-minded though; do whatever the group wanted. I pride myself on being extremely go-with-the-flow on vacation. I was in Brussels after all, who was I to complain about what we did? I was just happy to be far, far away from my cubicle hell back at work. My friend, Kristen wanted to go, so we went.
It was actually great right from the start. A much-needed break from the heat and all the walking we’d done. There were huge windows of gorgeous stained glass. Glass like you always see in a church and exactly what you’d picture in your head. I promise though, you still can’t even imagine the colors unless you’re there. It was like being inside a kaleidoscope with splashes and explosions all around, the tiles drowning in yellow and red light. Everything absolutely drenched like translucent paint had spilled everywhere. There were kids rehearsing a play on the ground floor; we didn’t want to disturb them. After discovering some beautiful stairs, we climbed to the second floor to observe from afar. Leaning over the banisters, we gawked as over and over again these children limped towards the front of some stage area. I don’t know what was happening – a play about a plague? There was a dog down there also, just running around. It was amazing. There had never been anything so silly and wonderfully random. It was lovely and amusing and so simple yet enormously enjoyable. Maybe we were all super tired after more than a week exploring Europe mostly on foot.
After some light applause and giggles we left the actors to it. There was probably more to discover here. After our first delightful encounter, that much was obvious. We wandered and found an elevator that went up to the roof. My friends and I are rooftop people. By that I just mean, we like to witness where we are, to study places from above like a live-action map. The first step out of the elevator rendered us immediately awestruck. Baffled by the silence, by the wind, and by the view, we walked around in a daze. At such a dizzying height, we could see far and wide all the beauty of Brussels. Pointing to places we had been and looking at how far we walked that day, we relived inside jokes and all the high points of our vacation so far. A single man walked around the corner then, heading towards the elevator. Still shocked at being the only people up here, we asked the man why that was. “Does no one come up here?” we cried in confusion. From inside the elevator, he turned and so quietly I almost missed it whispered wisely, “Only the birds..” Then he was gone. I was left reeling from this tiny spec of a statement.
I wrote the phrase down immediately in my notes app because I was so floored and surprisingly touched. Beautiful as our view was, we were clearly not at a tourist destination. We were not at some bucket list site. This was apparently somewhere isolated and seemingly mundane for reasons I could not fathom. We did see a few birds, nothing else. This further served to solidify in my mind that we were somewhere amazing because of its isolation. A place so quiet and far from thought that it was truly only birds that came here. I took photos of all my birds, to remember the statement and to have some kind of proof. It seemed such a dream, I walked around second-guessing the whole encounter. I don’t remember the man or the elevator or what I was wearing, but I remember the birds. And the solitude.
Quiet is difficult to find, especially on vacation when it’s easy to bring along a go-go-go-mentality and one can feel extreme pressure to hit all the big attractions. We found our quiet and our calm in this beautiful place that for whatever reason, people weren’t paying attention to. Standing quietly in the shadows of huge pillars on top of this cathedral, we paused for perhaps the first time in over a week.
It was a stroke of good luck that we came here when we did. A little slice of life was exposed to us in the play rehearsal. Apparently, that was semi-normal occurrence, the practicing. Dog included! We saw such insane beauty in the glass work and the birds eye view. I had my world absolutely rocked by a man who probably had zero intention of changing a life that day. Make no mistake, the church is a beautiful, imposing structure in its own right. It was incredible to be there if not just for the architecture. Finally, we were ready to leave. We used the stairs on the way down, least we miss more secrets hidden in stairwells instead of elevator shafts. Sure enough, around a little corner, one step off the stair well, we ran into a museum of religious art, like you do.
Kidding – you don’t! It was beautiful and thoughtful and so unexpected. We spent an extra hour there looking at some of the most thought-provoking pieces I have ever seen. I could not believe yet another wonder was just there for the viewing. No indication, no flyers, no signage. Hidden, but there if you looked.
The lesson here, of course is to pay particular attention to and actively seek out silence. You never miss the people shouting, or the bumping music, or the parade. You don’t have to look for those things in order to participate or get swept up in them. Get swept up in them you should, for that’s a large part of travel. The excitement, the business, the sight-seeing, and bucket lists. If you don’t wander down the quiet roads away and from the noise though, you risk missing so much. If we don’t try to get away from the attractions/distractions, we’ll never see more. As travelers we need to go to those places we can’t read about.
I write this piece as I sit here on the cusp of another trip to Europe. I leave in September and fully intend to see many things; to explore and eat and take pictures out the wazoo. I also intend to find somewhere with no humans. A place to sit and ruminate on life. A place where the only sound is the flutter of wings and the soft landing of tiny feet. Just the birds; me and the birds.