It took me quite some time to write this insertion into the travel blog. Honestly, I’m not sure how to properly communicate the incident that happened in Gent. For a time, I considered not writing about Gent, to spare me and you, the audience, the anguish. I discussed whether to share the following story on the blog with a few close friends of mine and a few not so close friends of mine. Some could offer advice no further than merely apologizing for what happened. Not because they felt in anyway responsible, but because they could only imagine the emotional and psychological anguish that is associated with such an unfortunate accident. Others, however, made a convincing argument for me to share. The purpose of this blog is to be honest about my travels and the experiences I encounter along the way. If I were to only share the ‘good’ or ‘positive’ aspects of the trip, then it may seem unrealistic, non-authentic, or not-relatable. Also, by talking about the hard times I offer people the opportunity to learn from my experiences and to use this knowledge to better guide their own decisions.
I have decided to start with the science aspect of the trip. I want to highlight the excellent research happening at Gent in the laboratory of Professor Korneel Rabaey. Korneel is looking for ways to use bacteria that survive in microbial electrochemical cells (MXCs) to reduce our global carbon footprint. He is trying to do this by using bacteria (Clostridium ljungdahlii) that grow on the cathode of an MXC. These bacteria grow by taking electrons from a cathode and obtaining their carbon from CO2, an inorganic carbon source in a process called chemosynthesis. Since these bacteria are capable of using CO2 as a carbon source (what is referred to as carbon fixation), they are able to sequester CO2 from the environment. Once the bacteria have fixed the CO2, it can be used for producing useful chemicals- a similar but different process to the one that plants use to produce apples, oranges, and other fruits from CO2 fixation. He is also working with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to improve toilets in India. Korneel Rabaey gave an excellent TEDx talk in Gent that can be viewed here:
Xu Zhang is working with MXCs containing multiple anodes to obtain results from multiple anode biofilms simultaneously.
Dr. Jose Arroyo (Curro) is working on large scale production of chemical products from complex waste streams.
to carry my 20 Kg backpack and the backpack I wear on the front. When I enter the flat, I am greeted by two beautiful black cats- Cooper and his sister Scarlet. At first, they are a little shy and reserved- Cooper hisses at first, but then becomes more friendly and comes up to me- Scarlet runs away to underneath the kitchen table. Jeet then proceeds to show me around the apartment.
The first thing I notice is the view. The flat is located on the eleventh floor and thus offers exquisite views of the city. The flat also has a large open layout with windows containing no screens on three sides- think of the flat as a kind of sky peninsula showing magnificent scenery all around. In the corner is a turntable with a small record collection. Adjacent to the turntable is the kitchen counter which stretches about eight feet to accommodate a large kitchen. On the counter is a note welcoming me to the flat and offering me a beer from the refrigerator.
cats have a hiding spot. While enjoying my beer, I put on a movie called What We Do in the Shadows, which was recommended by the Kiwi I met in Madrid. Cooper was there during most of the movie, but Scarlet was somewhere else entirely. About halfway through the movie, I notice that drinking alcohol with 9.2% is much different than the usual beer and it has pretty much knocked me out. I pause the movie and go to sleep for a few hours.
Gentse Feesten in full swing!
That night, I am to meet Jeet at a local week-long festival called Gentse Feesten- a celebration of the Flemish town of Gent that involves several bands playing every night, food trucks, and copious amounts of alcohol consumption. There are so many people at the festival that I cannot locate Jeet on the first night so I wandered around on my own until I found a stage with a band called Level Up- specializing in live renditions of video game themes and songs. Before returning to the flat, I grab a Belgian Waffle with Nutella- a Belgian tourist must! The waffle tastes sweet but firm, unlike the mushy Belgian waffles served up in most diners in the USA.
The next morning, I wake up. Leaving my room, I am greeted by two curious, friendly kitties. I have a bowl of cereal and decide that I should cook the food I purchased so that I can enjoy it for the rest of the trip. I put on another record and line the counter with fresh tomatoes, eggplants, mushrooms, paprika, bell peppers, sausage, squash, red onions, garlic, and arugula. I chop everything up and start to mix it in the pot. I turn on the stove. The weather in Gent on this particular day happened to be one of the hottest days in Gent the whole summer and I was cooking with the stove. As the inside of the apartment neared 90°F, I decided to crack the window in the kitchen to let some of the hot air from the oven escape to the outside. As I am cooking at the stove, the window is directly behind me; however, I am turning a lot to do chopping and vegetable washing, etc… so I can keep a close eye on the window.
After preparing my meal, I shut the window and exhausted by the heat, take a nap. After a few hours, I wake up and proceed to finish the movie I started the night before while consuming my homemade meal. It does not taste nearly as fresh as the one prepared in France, but I figure that’s the difference between fresh produce from a farmer’s market and the produce I purchased in a supermarket in Gent. After finishing, I contact Jeet and we agree to meet up at a local music venue located in the heart of Gentse Feesten called Magic Mirrors. Before departing for the night, I notice that Cooper has come into my room to lay on the bed with me. I cannot find Scarlet, so I figure she is in her hiding spot again. I put out some wet cat food and depart.
Magic Mirrors is a fantastic venue. From the outside, the venue looks like a rundown kind of trade-show/ circus-show building that may contain bearded ladies, mermaid skeletons, or some other kind of cheap parlor tricks. However, once inside, I am immersed in a large, circular building that has mirrors on all walls. The room itself looks like the inside of a circus building; however, the center is a giant dance floor and the middle has a modest stage. The lighting in the room is a combination of natural sunlight through stain-glass and spotlights. I have absolutely no idea who the first act is, but I do notice that whatever it is, it involves a cello.
The band that played turned out to be my favorite act of the festival. All of their songs were original and their sound was much different from the rest of the festival. For the most part, the festival consisted of street acts performing classical music and old rock ‘n’ roll hits like Roll Over Beethoven. The Girl Who Cried Wolf, however, had a sound more akin to trip-hop and the cello was tuned in such a way that it sounded more like an electronic synthesizer than a stringed instrument.
During the show, Jeet brought plenty a beer in the form of a local lager called Jupiler. This beer, at only 5.2%, is basically the Belgian equivalent to Budweiser. It’s not going to taste the best, but it’s cheap and it’ll get the job done. I had one during the show, I had one after the show, and in this time Jeet had put away about five- no way I can keep up with these people of Belgium. After this show, we decide to pack it in a little early (10PM).
You can check out The Gilr Who Cried Wolf on Bandcamp here:
Below, an interesting street act performs at the festival.
I walk back to the flat and am greeted by Cooper. Cooper is a little hesitant, but then runs up to rub on my legs- as cats do. I check the wet food and notice that only one food dish has been emptied. This is very concerning to me. I figure Scarlet probably is still a little skittish around me since I’m new to the house so maybe she is not interested in coming out to eat the food. Nevertheless, I have now been out for about four hours which should have been more than enough time for her to run over and grab some food before going back into hiding. So, I decided to look for her that night in all the places I have seen her around the house:
First, I check under the couch- no cat
I check under the kitchen table- no cat
I check in the hanging laundry- no cat
I check next to her litter box- no cat
In the area where the beer bottles are kept for recycling
In the kitchen cabinets
In the bathroom cabinets
Under my bed
On top of all the shelves in the house
Behind the records
In the Ikea shelves
Under the living room table
no cat, No Cat, NO CAT!!!
“Alright,” I say to myself, “the cat must be in the hiding spot it was in earlier when I couldn’t find it. I’m new to the house and it’s likely afraid of me.” I remembered all the cats that were around when my mom used to foster cats when I was young. A lot of cats will go to great lengths to hide from new comers- this one likely is very frightened. I figured it would come out to eat during the night since it was bound to be hungry by now.
The next morning, I wake up and Cooper has found his way back into my bed. But still no signs of Scarlet. My heart starts to race- where is this cat? “I know,” I think, “I’ll grab a new wet food bag and crinkle it. Cats always know the sound of the food bag!” I grab a food bag from the kitchen cabinet and crinkle it. The cat doesn’t come. I start to walk around the house, crinkling the bag in all the locations I looked earlier. No cat. Panic sets in. I don’t think the cat is in the apartment.
I run to the front door. I remember the first day, when Jeet let me in the apartment, the cat had run out into the hallway, but then ran back into the apartment. The cat may be out in the hallway- perhaps I let her out when I left for Gentse Feesten. I open the front door- there is no cat waiting. I walk down the stairs, all eleven floors, checking every corner of every floor. No cat. I walk back up the stairs, all eleven floors, rechecking every corner of every floor. I walk back into the apartment. “Where could the cat be?” I recheck all of the places in the apartment again- by this time, I have been looking for the cat for almost two hours- it’s not in the apartment, it’s not in the hallway…
My stomach drops; my heart starts to pace. The heat of the apartment combined with the stress of the search has me sweating. I wipe the hair off my brow. Now in the living room, I look over the counter into the kitchen. I slowly make my way over to the cat food bowls and stare down at them- one is empty, the other completely full. Keeping my eyes fixed on the bowls- to my left is the kitchen sink, where I washed my vegetables, and the stove, where I cooked my meal- I slowly lift my gaze and stare at the kitchen window, located about five feet high, just above the food bowls.
“No!” I mutter. And I stand there- completely still. The realization, the logical conclusion of my deduction, is now at the forefront of my psyche. I hesitantly take one step forward, then another- with my head close to the window, I can feel the heat of the outside air radiating through the glass. I slowly drop my gaze down to the surface below. Straight below, I stare.
I see, nine floors down, on the roof of the second floor of the apartment complex, a black outline in the shape of a cat. Nine floors I know, because it was nine floors I counted, over and over and over. Panic set in. All of the responses to all of the stresses you can imagine instantly and simultaneously washing over me- sweaty palms, shaky hands, unsteady balance, gastro-intestinal discomfort, tears. “All right, keep it together. It could be an alley cat.”
I leave the apartment and click the elevator. I hear it initiate and wait. I wait there in the hallway for the elevator, for what seems like an eternity. Minutes pass, hours, days- where is the damn elevator? The elevator opens, I take it to the second floor. The first thing I do is knock on the door of the person in the middle apartment on the second floor, then the person on the right apartment. From the eleventh floor, these apartments appear to have access to the roof area on the second floor. I figured that if one of them answered, I could explain the situation and they would willingly allow me to pass through their flat so that I could see what the black outline on the roof is. However, it was holiday, those flats were empty for the same reason mine was- no one was home. After knocking on each door multiple times, I come to terms with the fact that I’m living in an apartment complex that is virtually empty- a shell of the vibrant housing community it must be when students are studying in the winter months.
I abandon the idea of getting out there through either of these flats. I run down the stairs to the ground floor; “there must be a way up there via an emergency staircase.” I start to jog around the complex and quickly realize that accessing the back of the complex from the road is impossible since the buildings adjacent to it share walls. So, I run around the block hoping to access the back side of the complex from the road behind it. This also is impossible- the road behind the complex provides access to a different set of buildings that are also linked wall to wall- there is no way to access the apartment complex from the outside.
Desperate, I run back to the front of the complex and make my way up two flights of stairs to the second floor. I noticed earlier that the rooms on this floor have a slightly different layout then on the other floors. Rather than having the three apartment doors (left, center, and right apartment) next to each other, the second floor has the left apartment, then another door, then then center apartment, and so on. When I saw this ‘other’ door earlier, I figured it led to some kind of maintenance or service closet. As I walked up to it, I noticed a gap underneath the door. Through the gap, I could see what looked like a bunch of garbage. Figuring, still, that it was a maintenance closet, I walked up to it anyway- determined to exhaust all of my options. I crept up and put my hand on the knob, the wetness of my hands slippery on its metal finish, I twisted and the door opened. Inside was a small room full of trash that led to another doorway- the other doorway put me on the second floor roof, nine floors down, on the side of the apartment opposite the kitchen window. Walking on the roof, it had an asphalt finish, the sun was baking hot- I was already damp from running around the block and now was continuing to sweat. As I rounded the first corner, I came across another wall blocking my view of the black outline I had seen from the eleventh floor. I walked again to the end of this wall so that I could round the peninsula. All in all, the walk from the door to where I could start to make out the black outline was probably no more than a minute- it seemed like an eternity.
As I rounded the last corner, I spotted the black outline. I walked closer. My face at this point expressionless. One step, two step. I stopped. The form of what was clearly a cat lay just five feet in front of me. My whole body was stiff; I wasn’t hot anymore- a sudden chill come over me. I took another step and stared down at the motionless cat that lay in front of me. Slowly, and with great effort, I managed to extend one of my feet to tap on the cat. Motionless. I turned away and stared- at the trees, at the sky, into myself. I couldn’t move. There I stood, on the rooftop, pale, expressionless, cold, sweaty, numb, utterly lost. My only movement- the slow expansion of my chest as I breathed in and out in large breaths.
“Fuck. Damn it. God fucking damn it. What? How? No fucking way.” An overwhelming sorrow swept over me. And then, “what do I do now? How do I tell them?”
When I eventually mustered up the courage to move, I knew that I had to do something. I couldn’t stand there all day wishing something that had happened hadn’t happened all day. As I made my way back up to the eleventh floor I went over all the possible next steps in my head:
Tell them now, as soon as I can, so they know exactly what has happened.
Tell them later so that they can enjoy their vacation and not have to worry about their cat.
What do I do with the remains?
How do I contact a vet?
After talking it over, I decided the best course of action is to tell them now. So, I drafted an email:
It’s very difficult for me to write this email. I cannot express the emotions that I feel right now. Yesterday, I opened a window because it was intensely hot in the apartment and Cooper (sic*) jumped out. I went down to check on him and he did not survive the fall. Words cannot express the sorrow that I feel. I am totally lost as to what to do about this accident. Please let me know what I can do- anything.
(*At the time, I was confused as to which cat had been lost.)”
After drafting this email, I sat and stared at it. I knew that once I sent that email, they would receive it and know the fate of their cat. So I stared, the glare of my screen baking my eyes, I stared. I thought about clicking the send button, I started breathing quickly and heavily, I reached out my hand, my breaths were even shorter now, I clicked the send button, I held my breath, I stared at the screen waiting for a response, several minutes passed. I decided that, in all likeliness, the owners probably did not have access to the internet and thus would not be able to respond immediately. I clicked off my computer. Exhausted, tired, hot, and sweaty, I passed out on the mattress behind me- a dreamless sleep.
After about an hour, I woke up startled. Cooper was in the room, next to me. As I reached over to pet him, I began to weep, but quickly regained my composure. I checked my email, there was a response. After a few exchanges, we arranged for a friend to come by and help me to remove the cat and for me to vacate the premises. I went down and put a blanket over the cat and returned to the room to finish packing and cleaning up. I tried to keep busy- anything to keep my mind off of the events. When the friend arrived, I was determined to keep my composure and remain calm so that we could get through the process and he could be on his way. When he entered, he had a plastic bag in his hand. Then, he said that we need to take a picture of the cat that was still alive so that we could send it to the owners. Looking at the plastic bag and looking for the other cat, next to the laundry that was hanging, I completely broke down. Exhausted and helpless- I could not imagine how I would get through this moment. I couldn’t help but think of all the things I could have done, that could have been done to prevent this:
The hostel stay I cancelled, the meal I cooked, the window I opened. I could have locked the cats in the bathroom. I could have faced the heat. I could have gone out to eat. Fucking anything! Anything but this.
I regained my composure and we made our way down to the cat. We removed the towel. Slowly he lifted the cat’s stiff body into the plastic bag. I tried to help, but had great difficulty in looking at the carcass- touching it was next to impossible. He carried the bag, now heavy with the body of the cat, and we returned to the eleventh floor. There, Cooper had gone into hiding, but we needed to get a picture to send to the owners. After looking, we eventually found where the hiding spot for the cats was- a series of interconnected cabinets in the bathroom- and Cooper was not ready to come out. After trying for about thirty minutes, I told him that I would stay and get a picture of the cat, leave the keys with him, and lock the doors manually from the inside on my way out. He agreed that this was a good idea and left with the keys and the bag.
Having been around cats my whole life, I understood that the best way to lure a cat is not to lure a cat at all. I emptied a bag of wet food into a dish a set it next to the dining room table. Then, I sat at the table and waited. After what seemed like ten minutes, Cooper emerged from the bathroom and went over to the dish. I shut the bathroom door,took my picture, and sent it to the owners. Agreeing that I should leave the house (I would ask the same), I then began to look for alternate living arrangements.
Needless to say, the last thing I was ready to do in that moment was think about where I’m going to stay that evening. My mind was totally immersed in thoughts of the cat and the incident. But I knew I had to find somewhere. At this point, all the hostels had been booked. Genten Feesten brings a lot of tourists to the city, and all of them had filled. I started looking at hotels- the only ones left were in the $200 a night range. And then I got a text from Antonin in the lab. He is the one I worked with to plan out my visit to Gent. He had returned from his vacation that day and asked if I wanted to meet up and get a beer. I explained to him that some very heavy stuff had happened at the flat and that I needed a place to stay. He told me that he had a friend visiting from France and that I may have to sleep on a blanket on the floor. I left for his place.
Antonin and friends showed me this video during my stay to help cheer me up. It’s a delectably cheesy video for the French equivalent of Power Rangers in the 1980s.
(Then, one of the kindest gestures that I have ever experienced occurred. The owner of the cat, understanding that finding living accommodations will be next to impossible because of the festival, contacts me and offers to let me stay again in their flat because they do not want me to be left out on the street. The gesture is so sincere that I have to hold back tears for about a minute. I let them know that I am staying with Antonin, but that I am very grateful for the offer.)
Hanging out with these guys is the best thing that could have happened after the incident. I really needed people to talk to and keep my mind off of the severity of it. We attended Genten Feeten together for the next several days and I met many members from the lab. We talked about politics, business, traditions, beer, etc… topics other than the cat. We went out to get a true Belgian 'bleu' (blood) steak. As we went to shows and events- the image of the cat would erupt in my mind. Watching traditional Flemish dancing, the people hypnotic in their movements, dancing with their loved ones, and I see an image of the dead cat. Chocolate shop- dead cat. Restaurant- dead cat. Buying some beers- dead cat. It was all a bit maddening.
By the time I got the university to give my seminar, the festival had ended, and it was my last day in town. It was also on Monday and the owners of the cat would be back in town, perhaps at the seminar. I had never met them. As I give the seminar to a room of people I haven’t met, and some of which I have, I can’t help but wonder if the person I’m staring at is the owner. Every question I get I wonder. Every time someone looks at me I wander if they are judging me. Are they the owner? Do they know? Are they going to scream at me? Hit me? All actions I can see as justifiable in this case.
Giving a lecture about this level of information and research is already stressful, this kind of not knowing and fear of judgement is a whole different level. I thought, for a time, of not even giving the lecture. I would send an email and cancel the thing. Say, ‘due to unfortunate circumstances, I have had to leave town early,’ or something of the like. But I decided, ‘no, I’m going to do this. I came here to give this lecture because I love science and talking about research. If the owners are here and want to talk to me, then I should be here to talk with them. I owe them that. I owe myself that.’ So I gave the lecture and met with Korneel over lunch. I also met with some members of the lab. The lab could not have been nicer. After a few hours, I decided to leave. I needed to get out of the lab and have some time by myself.
I walked into the town and finally allowed myself to visit some of the local monuments including:
Above: the view from the Belfort. Below: the clock in action!
Street Art on Werregaren Straat
I even took a boat cruise to get my mind off of things
This event really led me to contemplate this whole experiment of mine. Never did I imagine that something so horrific, so devastating, could occur during this world trip to share science. After many hours, and with great resolve, I determined that I would continue on to Poland, as planned, and see how I felt after experiencing another country- not knowing if #ScienceTheEarth would continue.