Thursday, September 24, 2009

Travel Log #8 Genk, Waterschei & Gelieren

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Well, I'm finally back where it all started for me so many years ago. The two places where, as a young boy, I developed an awareness of the world around me.

We left Hasselt and drove the short distance to Gelieren but could not locate the old straw-thatched farmhouse my family left behind to emigrate to the USA when I was just ten years old. Everything was different. After spending what seems like hours driving around and studying maps, we simply could not locate the street called Hoogsij in Gelieren. We then decided to regroup and get our bearings back in Genk and to visit my birthplace and first home in Waterschei in a small coal-mining town called Texas. Unfortunately, Texas was gone! I suspected as much since I used Google Earth and saw only the faint outline of the streets but no buildings. All that was left was a gravel parking lot for a large football (soccer) stadium. I stood at the exact spot where the old house once stood on what was once Fazantstraat #1. We parked the rental car and walked through a small section of woods at the far end of Fazantstraat. I remember many happy days at play here as a child. The mountain of coal tilings, the small pond with lilly pads, and the trail through the woods were still there. It was sunny and warm. There were young children swimming and cavorting in the little pond while others were climbing the mountain which now was overgrown at its crown with trees of every variety. The children looked like they were on a school outing because there were three adults and about 30 children of approximately the same age. We spoke to a caretaker and a couple of local hikers who were happy to share some history about the surroundings. We learned that the little coal mining town was dismantled and removed.

It then was rebuilt as "New Texas' in another location back in the mid-seventies after the coal mines were shut down. After taking a few pieces of coal as mementos from the mountain, we jumped back in the car and made our way to the old railway station on the other side of the stadium. It looked exactly the way I remember it with the same white concrete fence in the picket style and gravel open space in front. We then drove back to downtown Genk where we had lunch in an outside setting and made use of the local laundromat. We then drove back to Gelieren and finally found Hoogsij which is a long winding street. Gelieren is not a town but only a named section of criss-crossing roads. Nothing was familiar. What used to be a very rural area with old farmhouses and wide open fields was now a densely populated street with modern brick homes one after another on both sides. The house that was at the exact number where our old farmhouse stood looked nothing like what I remember. Alas, I guess it is true what they say. You can't go home again. We took some pics at both locations.

For some years before this visit, it was important to me to make this pilgrimage. It was a kind of longing to justify the happy but vague fragments of youthful remembrances. This was supposed to be the centerpiece of this trip. While driving back to Hasselt, I felt a somewhat melancholy and somber mood. I realized then that this place is just a long-lost and faded memory and occupies a much lower prominence in my mind that it had before the trip. Maybe I felt a little disappointed in that there wasn't much left. I am glad, however, that we came to this place even though it is no longer my place.

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