It was when, instead of waiting for another lift on the outskirts of Antwerpen, I ventured into the city in search of lunch, that I met a guy on a bike. He was about twenty and had an excentric looking long moustache that lend itself copiously to twirling. He said he was a traveller, too, just back from Istanbul where he had made an arts exhibition, and did I need a place to stay, would I like to meet his hippy friends...? Altogether this seemed random enough, so I accepted the invitation.
The place where he picked me up was the Jewish quarter of town, an interesting place to be in, crawling with those readically retro people, snatched right from a fifties film in their long monochrome coats and frilly dresses, when black and white TV forbade even the thought of colour.
He took me to the place he lived, in a rented house of a community of friends, in a part of town mostly inhabitant by immigrants.
By most standards, the young men had a pretty cool house. There was a mess all over of all sorts of contrivances used to make techno music, as well as tall abstract-paintings leaning against the walls. In lieu of posters, they had hung up oil-painted "jokes" such as Keith Haring stickmen performing cunnilingus, or a pizza-sized amoeba in an antique looking fancy gold frame that had probably been found on the street.
Somehow, I never broke it to the guy (his name was Gilles) that I hate arts, and find it a shameful waste of time and resources, so when he proposed a free lift to Brussels to go to a gallery in the evening I did not demur. Gilles wanted to introduce me to some artist of Roma origin. However we never found the adress and ended up spending the evening drinking beer on a church square in the town centre of Brussels.
That evening Gilles said to me: "Tomorrow, before you leave, would you like to come see the house I squatted in a village up North?" -"Why not", was my answer.
We ended that night at half past four in the morning walking from the curious mix of architecture Brussels' town centre sports -elegant buildings dating from the 19th century, shoulder-to-shoulder with eye sore 80's tower blocks- on to some seedy areas further out. There we walked amidst scanty-clad shop-window ladies lolling on their tall stools, insinuatingly sucking on cigarettes under the rose lamp light, and the rats flitting past us out from under the rubbish bins. Finally we took a turn and when our little group of four started trudging up a street on the steep hills, this was in complete solitude. We had been walking for a while like this when suddenly, the street behind us began to stream with rows of silent walkers, males of all ages, some in djebalas, some with taqiya (prayer caps) on. Prayer in the mosque seemed to have finished right there and then and people were returning to their houses. It was still Ramadan, and they were beginning their day's fast right now.
Finally we arrived in front of the house in the residential area on a hill where my new-found friends lived, St. Mary's gold cuppola gleaming at the bottom of the street.
The next day, as announced, Gilles took me to the house he had squatted in the macabre village of Doel.
As we rolled into the village my trained squatter's eye spotted immediately another empty house at the village entrance, a red-brick construction with boarded up windows. Then immediately I saw another one, and another one, until with a sort of shock I realized the whole street was empty. And then, as we rolled past some pretty cool graffiti of house-high rats and crows, headless pigs and sleeping bulls, screaming girls and male, muscular angels, I made another realization: No, it was the whole village that was empty.
Big corporations wanted to empty out the village from as early as 40 years ago in order to be able to expand the harbour. The process got finally started 10 years ago, and the job is essentially done now, with only 16 houses still being inhabited. As it was, squatters were quick to move in.
The peak of the squatting was three years ago. A whole circus even had taken residence in a large farm on the Northern outskirts of the village. Not only the usual type of politically active squatters or the crazy artist-hippy type used to basic conditions had come and nested, there were even people like a young married couple whom Gilles knew: They had come to live here while their newly bought house inside the city was being rented out to pay off the mortgage.
Of course one day, the crackdown came: The squatters were not only evicted, but many of the houses that had been squatted were entirely razed to the ground. The tragic thing is that the company did not actually have the permits for demolishing the houses, and they were thus flattened completely illegally. Electricity and water were switched off for all the other empty houses, so as to discourage further squatting.
Gilles of course is unreformable and to this day he dreams of making something like the Dutch hippy colony Ruigoord out of Doel. Ruigoord is a lively artists village near Amsterdam, which attracts people to garish Goa parties almost weekly in the summer. It was originally squatted almost 40 years ago after it had been empty for several years for much the same reasons as Doel: The owners of the territory had sold it to the large industries of the nearby harbour, and forcibly evicted the inhabitants of that land. In the 70's it had been the petrol crisis that had thwarted the plans of expansion of the harbour; for Doel in this day it was to be the economic crisis of 2008.
To round off the spooky atmosphere reigning in Doel, the village is actually situated right next to a nuclear power plant. The twin towers of the plant, those cloud makers, stand proudly, majestically emitting the snow-white swirl of toxicity in perfectly vertical colons into sky when it is windstill.
Some graffitis made fun of this saying "You are in Doel. Now breathe!"
After I had roamed the village for a couple of hours and seen countless smashed in windows, burnt roofs, and abandoned dog huts, I just wanted to leave. The illusion of a squatters' paradise had worn off quickly: It had finally hit me how sad it all was. I'd seen people's black and white school photographs on the walls, memories abandonned, left behind. I'd seen toy cars, broken, but the plastic still lustrous, astray in the backyard, as if some kid would still come running out the door to play any moment. The good quality of the wooden furniture still left in the houses was astonishing. On one window was a print-out of someone saying "if I catch you looting my stuff, I will shoot without discrimination". I am ready to believe that the person writing this was not of the crazy and violent type, but simply desperate and hurt because all his personal stuff had been vandalised and looted, until there was nothing left to loot.
On the walls in the village there were "Wanted for murder on Doel" posters, with the names of those responsible for the tragedy.
The most ironic item of the village was perhaps the yellowed poster, once put up by the municipality, showing a boy in sailor costume and a girl in a hat feeding the birds reading "Voor een reine, bloeiende stad" - "For a clean, flourishing town".