Close to the student dorms of Ghent lies an outlet of the magical store of Albert Heijn, serving to fill the stomachs of students, or to cater to their more hipster sensibilities (or both). Often I saw the young students of Ghent emerge from Albert Heijn with crates of 24 bottles of beer. Once I saw one gent (pun unintended) manage one of these on his bike with one hand while managing to pedal his bike and ride comfortably. If the crate had slipped it would have been a damage of about fifteen Euro and just under 8 litres of beer in one single shot.
Aspiring to be like the Young People of Ghent (YPOGs), and under the influence of some strong beers (also typical of this region), one Saturday evening, my friends and I purchased a 24 pack of Heineken. It was just a two hundred metre walk from the store to the dorm room, but loaded with the twelve or more kilos of beer and glass, each metre felt like a mile. Adrenalin charging our bodies, Trappist beer coursing through our veins, and a moderate degree of strong determination (to emulate the YPOGs) saw us through that short expedition.
These beers were consumed at leisure, to say the least. Some bottles we carried in our hands one freezing winter night during the Ghent Light Festival, where the town's populace moved about like orderly zombies to see light installations, undeterred by the gently falling snow. We lugged between six and nine pints in bags slung across our shoulders (the weather conditions ensured that the beers becoming warm wouldn't be one of our concerns that night). In contrast, some pints were consumed in the comfortable t-shirt weather inside my dorm room. Some beers formed the accompaniments to pasta that I (over)cooked one evening. Some others were drunk almost as sobering antidotes (5% alcohol content) after heavier beers one night (9-13%) during a meal of Mussels in Brussels that left me inebriated and speaking exclusively in bad German.
Our dorms were located on a quirky street called Overpoortstraat, the "Vegas strip of Ghent". Seemingly, the Las Vegas of Ghent shut down for business on Friday and became a ghost town over the weekend. But Wednesday nights were a sight to behold. YPOGs swarmed this street in large numbers, drunkenly shouting and hooting, and partying till 7 a.m. the next day.
The full and true impact of the Wednesday night revelry could be felt only on Thursday morning. The streets were punctuated with YPOG puke (YPOGP?). Those freezing winter temperatures and the existence of urinals that lacked any real sewage mechanism (unless urine freely making its way to the road counts as one) ensured that puke and piss became ice on Ghent streets. Men in special neon jackets deployed just for cleaning up the glass and debris of the past night's revelries could be seen diligently at work before the sun rose on Overpoortstraat each Thursday morning. Large trucks could be seen moving down the length of the narrow Vegas strip, clearing up the party residue with some kind of mechanised broomy apparatus. On these mornings, a small town's entire municipal administration became complicit in purging the legitimate mess of the YPOGs. Because apparently a student town must condone or even encourage this behaviour.
On one Thursday morning, I do the walk of shame with my empty 24 bottle crate of Heineken to Albert Heijn. All around me, I see the YPOG mess from the previous night being cleaned up. The crate is lighter today, but the burden of ignominy that results merely from those around me probably deeming me complicit in the destruction that they are now being forced to clear, feels heavier than the twelve or so kilos of beer that have now been consumed. Each bottle in the crate is intact. None of them have been smashed into green crystals and found their way to the surface of Overpoortstraat.
Sidestepping the vomit lining the street (seemingly still fresh, and not yet frozen - perhaps giving rise to new Ghentian the phrase: "the paint puke is still wet"), I walk with my gaze lowered, and the evidence of consumption conspicuously in my hands. I fervently wish that those cleaning up the streets knew that I did not contribute to the mess they are being made to clean up as their first task on a Thursday morning.
Little do they know the more embarrassing detail associated with these empty bottles: my friends and I consumed this entire crate over two and a half weeks. We are not the Young People of Ghent.