My first few hours of Leuven, Belgium is captured perfectly by the very helpful city maps scattered throughout its shops and streets. A series of cobblestone paths and stone houses radiating out of the ancient University centre, the maps capture all of the streets in their asymmetrical charm. Every map is perfectly detailed for the city guest.
And every map lacks a little red dot that says “You Are Here.”
It gets better: most of the streets have no street signs.
It might be a tourist’s nightmare, but it’s a writer’s paradise.
When I’m not trying to get lost, I can accomplish it in a pinch. But when I am resigned not to worry about it—settled to a fate of wandering lost in a medieval monastic-trading village in all its 21st century glory—I find cities remarkably easy to access. I’ve navigated my way through Tokyo so we could eat at Subway. I tested my internal GPS in Jerusalem, placing my fingers in the bullet holes that remain in clay walls. As hard as they try to disorient the visitor, I am able to find my way through most modern cities. Leuven is no exception.
But just because I can access the streets does not mean I know the city’s heart.
With fine reference to the metaphor, the organ of Leuven is the many-buildinged KU, the oldest Catholic university in the world. Twice the Germans burnt their ancient library during our World Wars, destroying ancient manuscripts and un-copied texts and original artwork from the Renaissance masters. Twice the continent cleared away the ash and began again, and Lueven is built up around this Dark Age seat of higher education.
But to know its historical, religious, hard “c” cultural centre is not necessarily to know the heart of the culture. I’ve always thought that a city is known less by its Wikipedia page and more by its sights and sounds and dominant smells.
When I first arrived in Leuven, I was tempted to judge its people as my own. Perhaps this is unique to me, coming as I do from a hometown about the same size and with about the same ethnic makeup. But it is more than pink flesh. Their mannerisms are similar, and as I wander by their tables and bus queues, and overhear their language, I am tempted to think I already know it—that I can speak Flemish without having learned it.
But there are differences in the culture around me.
There are girl skateboarders here—not in street clothes, but in handsome short and blouse suits. A skateboard is transportation. And so are bicycles. Miles of bicycles streaming through streets ill equipped for cars anyway. There are stations to park your bike, but they are largely ignored as every sidewalk is thinned with bikes leaning on every wall. The bicycles are locked to themselves.
The bicyclists themselves are confident the roads are theirs. Women ride in short skirts without the slightest hint of thigh, and yet bare-breasted women on posters proffer wares. What wares they sell, I don’t know. Perhaps it is the women. Or simply the breasts.
The people are thinner here than in my home town—even the ones that are not. They are better dressed, though that trend evolves into jeans and t-shirts the more I move away from the train station toward the campus.
It is a country where even four hundred years ago they knew they would need every inch of real estate. So they nestled rows of four-story brick houses block after block after block. Some of these are homes still, no doubt, but the ground floors are now shops and cafés. There is a bakery on every commercial block, selling delicacies that I didn’t even know existed. I am certain they will alter my understanding of pastries forever if I dare to step in.
Every block also has a restaurant, with tables and chairs taking ground from the cobblestone pedways. On every table is a glass of beer, like a minimum requirement for considering lunch. The blot-white traces of malt head record the history of each drink in pilsner glasses, lager glasses, beer steins, juice tumblers, and even wine glasses. Stella Artois signs are as ubiquitous in Leuven as Coca Cola signs are in Georgia or Bangkok. Stella Artois is served by the centilitre.
I found a drug store—it looks like the ancient, evil-tinted word, “pharmakeia”—but have yet to see a supermarket. Perhaps everyone eats only at these cafés and restaurants and bakeries, but the closest thing I’ve seen to a 7-11 is packed.
I found a used bookstore. I believe I know the phrase “Antiquarian Booksellers since 1908” in most European scripts. They had bins of books in Dutch, German, English, and French, three for five Euros. There were a few Arabic books, but no Chinese ones. The Asian grocers here are West Asian, though I can see around me that even this is shifting.
The great Dutch humanist Erasmus is honoured in the form of a driving school.
Church bells adorn every hour and chime the quarters. They are out of tune now, but still retain their hymnic charm.
Hipsters, even here, walk small dogs in one hand and hold coffee in the other.
I steal Wifi from Starbucks—a ritual I am comfortable with on most any continent—hoping I can use their bathroom. They have none—none of the small restaurants or little shops do as the Flemish are apparently not hospitable in this particular way. But they are in other ways. When I meet a cashier’s complex question with mute silence she abandons her native tongue for German. I smile. Then she tries French, and she smiles at me as I buy an “Italian” sub. It has pesto, a light, white, mystery cheese, and tomatoes. I buy a Coke Zero with the name Jean-Marc. It is sold in half litres.
I still have not found a bathroom as I wander. Finally I jump into a construction site’s porta potty. Heavy set men in yellow hard hats yell at me as I leave, and though I don’t speak the language, I have some clear idea what they said.
I find myself going downhill and eventually find a park with shade and a bench to sit and write. There are not so many parks in Leuven’s downtown core, but this is a great green field on a hill. It is packed with students, and I wonder sometimes if everyone in Leuven is between the ages of fourteen and twenty-four. Oh, no, there’s a Stella Artois pub filled with old guys smoking.
They certainly are better at smoking here. The students drink beer from cans on the great grassy lawn. They sip wine from plastic cups and pass joints in a grass-stained circle. They are great sharers. A young woman in a dress lies beside a young man. They talk, their eyes nine inches apart. He takes out his phone and shows her a picture. She points to something on the phone and now her arm is on his chest.
It is a good move. I’ll have to remember than one.
Two guys in jeans recklessly chase a Frisbee over the revelers’ heads. No one notices.
An improvised marching band in frat drag just walked by my park bench for no apparent reason.
I walk on as the trumpet fades away.
It seems the north side of the circle flows downward to the university, but I resist for a bit, heading back up sun-shadowed streets. There is an exhibition here, with tilt-a-whirl type rides and second-rate Ferris wheels. There are carnies here, but they are different. They wear clean white shirts and Bermuda shorts. One young woman in an Elmo t-shirt is in charge of giving expectant risk-takers a chance to win a one-eyed stuffed minion. The carnies aren’t very carnie like, though they smoke a lot of pot. Perhaps they aren’t so different. Which is good. If you can’t trust a carnie to submit to social stereotypes, who can you trust?
I don’t remember much for the few minutes after the street exhibition.
Finally I stop resisting the geography and tumble downhill into an open plaza with five dozen restaurants and bars. The pubs are so inviting and the crowds so big that you can hardly even notice the breathtaking seventeenth century brownstones and fifteenth century sandstone gentry houses.
I sit at the Café Belge and write. It offers free Wifi and over sixty “special beers.” The date 1694 is set in stone between the second and third floors. The date? The address? Finally, the waitress finds her way to me. She says, “Hello. Welcome.” How does she know, “Hello,” instead of “Hallo” or “Goeie avond” or “Bievenue” or “Hola” or “Assalamu Alaykum?”
English is an accessory here. It is in most ads and on a great number of buildings. Everyone knows it, yet no one speaks it. How do Europeans know to collect languages like that?
The waitress does not speak much English, so I have her just bring me whatever she wants. She brings a local blonde lager and a bag of Lays potato chips. “Naturel” flavour. The blonde is in a heavy Caesar glass, and has a citrus flavour with light hops and no aftertaste. I think it is about 42cl.
I’m supposed to pay her right there, and I tip 15% though I have no idea if you tip in Belgium, and how much. I can’t connect to the free Wifi, so I cannot even look it up.
The sun is setting. Or, if it isn’t setting yet, the line of warm light is slowly creeping up the wall of the buildings across the street. The waitress has asked if I would like some cheese, but I politely refused. Blot-white traces of malt head record the history of my drink, and I think it is time I found food greater than a bag of Lays naturel chips. My head is starting to spin from cigarette smoke as the patio fills.
Perhaps I will go to the shawarma place down a little alley I passed. The guy was making fun of his customers and it smelled good. At least, I think he was making fun of them. I still don’t speak Flemish, despite being here all day. Is it odd going to a Mediterranean restaurant in Belgium? Somehow I doubt it.
I wonder what it’s like to live in a city that is built upon lost civilizations and early generations. A city where, if we pulled back these worn paving stones, we would find beneath them a Roman road or Frankish field or the foundations of some Roman-era Gaelic mead house. Perhaps it doesn’t mean anything, in particular. Perhaps it is just cell phones and cobblestones and sixty kinds of special beer. I don’t know. For all this city is a series of radiant lines from the centre, I’m not sure people live their lives that way.
I don’t know.
It’s hard to know from an afternoon of wearing out Reeboks and looking for a toilet. I am going to need a toilet again soon.
But I can’t help wondering about all these people. It seems they are casually indifferent to the heartbreaking beauty of it all.
Or perhaps they just haven’t found the red dot on their map saying, “You Are Here.”
I did eat at that shawarma place. The cook made fun of me, but was nice enough to do it in English. He migrated here from Syria. The customers were watching professional Tetris players on TV. The studio audience cheered maniacally at a simple two line sweep. I had what he called a “pita” but is really pita toppings on fries on a plate with garlic sauce and a little piece of tiny, tasty flatbread lain on top. I had a Coke Zero named Ronaldo. The pop was 33cl. Tip: If you go to this store, get a fork.
I found a 15cl beer, unopened, on the way home. It is a Mexican styled Cerveza called “Desperado.” I’m trying to decide if I should leave it somewhere else for someone else to find.
I was able to go to the bathroom at that sixty special beers pub. It was a unisex bathroom with urinals. A gal came in when I was reading the graffiti, and wasn’t upset she had to share or that a man was at a urinal. She was upset they were out of soap.
Here’s the view from the urinal on my floor at the Dominican monastery where I am staying.