In the song by Jacques Brel, Marieke was twenty years old when he loved her so much (and so long ago) between the towers of Brugge/Bruges and Gent/Gand in the north of Belgium.
Ay Marieke Marieke je t’aimais tant
Entre les tours de Bruges et Gand
Ay Marieke Marieke il y a longtemps
Entre les tours de Bruges et Gand
In this statue by Jef Claerhout, in a small square in Brugge, Marieke looks younger. In her light summer dress and open shoes she seems to be shivering in the cold wind, so people try to dress her to protect her from the elements.
At the base of the statue, the inscription lets on that this is a tribute to Jacques Brel (1929-1978), inaugurated ten years after his death.
At first glace it might seem odd for a city in Flanders to be honoring a singer who was reputed to be wildly prejudiced against the Flemish. But actually it’s not quite that simple. Although Brel spoke and sang mainly in French, he was of half Flemish descent and always described himself as being Flemish, though he was opposed to Flemish nationalism.
Marieke is one of his few bi-lingual songs, with alternate verses in French and Dutch. The Dutch verses say that without love, warm love, there would just be wordless wind and the weeping grey sea and sand blowing over the flat country that he calls “my Flanders”.
He varies the text with each reprise, and in the second Dutch verse he even lapses into French three times to say “c’est fini” (it’s finished) and “déjà fini” (already finished) and “tout est fini” (everything is finished).
In the second French verse he sings about the Flemish sky, which “cries with me from Bruges to Gand”. And in the third French verse he asks Marieke if the Flemish sky was weighing down too heavily on her twenty years.
In the third Dutch verse the black devil laughs, his old heart burns, the summer dies and sand covers the flat country, which he again calls “my Flanders”.
In the fourth French verse he tells Marieke he wishes the time would return “when you loved me from Bruges to Gand”.
In the fifth and last French verse, he tells the absent Marieke that in the evenings all the ponds from Bruges to Gand open their arms to him. Do you suppose he is tempted to drown himself in the Minnewater?
Perhaps Jacques Brel’s powerful song is not so far removed from Bruges-la-Morte after all.
After all these years I have finally realized why it is that lovely young ladies in French love songs are always twenty years old, but never nineteen or twenty-one.
The reason is that the French expression for “your twenty years”, tes vingt ans, has only three syllables and is easy to sing. It practically rolls off your tongue while you’re groping for guitar chords, and it fits in smoothly with the rest of your lyrics, whatever they might be.
Tes dix-neuf ans, on the other hand, is already four syllables and somewhat harder to get your mouth around.
Tes vingt-et-un ans is even worse. It has five syllables, with consonants that clack around in your mouth and get in your way while you’re trying to sound heartsick.
So I have some advice for all you gorgeous young ladies who want to be immortalized in a French love song. My advice is to love him and break his heart while you’re still twenty. Then he’ll sing about you for the rest of his life. But if you do it a year earlier or later you’ll end up being just another faded memory.
This is a collage I made a few years ago showing Marieke between the towers of Brugge (on the left) and Ghent (on the right).
Above her head is the Flemish sky that weighs so heavily on her twenty years and cries with her lover from Bruges to Gand.
Below her is the Minnewater, one of the ponds that open their arms to him “from Bruges to Gand, from Bruges to Gand, from Bruges to Gand . . . “
Listen to Jacques Brel singing Marieke
My photos in this post are from 2012. I revised the text in 2017.