In the autumn of 2004 I found myself suddenly relocating to Belgium, at the expense of an attractive job offer in Italy. It was one of those major forks in the road, the kind of big decision that could transform a life. Which, for better or for worse, is exactly what it did.
I’ve had loads of homes in my life. So many that I couldn’t name them all if I tried. From this multitude of mostly temporary habitats, two stand out head and shoulders above the rest. As a kid growing up in England, there was the magical 12 School Lane, Old Amersham; a cosy little three bedroom council house next door to St. Mary’s, the primary school I attended. Located opposite a large park, with playground, lawn tennis courts and the local youth club, that modest little council house served as HQ for what was a virtually idyllic childhood.
As an adult, the two years I spent living in Leuven’s Muntstraat were equally special. After eighteen months in my little student room near the train station, I was unspeakably excited to be moving into a cosy little one-bedroom apartment behind the town hall. Muntstraat was a narrow pedestrianised street home to a clutch of the city’s best restaurants and a scattering of tiny, atmospheric bars.
My landlord was a pompous old professor named Luc, a military expert and minor Belgian TV personality. Occasionally hauled in front of a TV camera, he’d be asked to give his opinion on this in Afghanistan, perhaps say a few words about that in Baghdad. Something of a local property mogul, he also owned and rented out a bunch of apartments across Leuven. A pernickety bird-like creature with condescending spectacles and gray thinning hair, he had the air of a man who might spend his free time perched at a favorite desk rearranging his collection of fountain pens into ascending height order. On the mercifully few occasions I had to deal with him, he’d lecture me on my responsibilities as a renter and make a fuss over the little things. No matter how inconsequential to the average eye, nothing escaped Luc’s attention. It could be an offending out of reach cobweb up on the ceiling, or disapproval that I’d put up a few nails to hang pictures. But while clearly not the kind of guy I’d want to have a beer with, he was in all fairness an honest and decent landlord who taught me a lot about the potential pitfalls of being a renter in Belgium.
Happily, said pitfalls turned out to be few. I loved everything about the apartment, from its long high-ceilinged living room and sizeable bedroom, to the poky little kitchenette and its adjoining balcony overlooking the leafy courtyard below. Even the crappy plastic cubicle shower in the bathroom had its charms, despite its precarious location plonked next to the epileptic washing machine.
On the subject of frenzied sounds, there was plenty of entertainment courtesy of my upstairs neighbour, a leggy redhead whose sexual activities were broadcast across the building at least twice a week. Seemingly unconcerned by who might be listening, the girl possessed a really impressive pair of tonsils. Bumping into her one day in the communal hallway, she introduced herself as “Binky”, which nearly caused me to laugh out loud right in her face; mainly because I’d thought she’d said “Boinky’’.
A few weeks after moving in, my dad drove over from Scotland in a small van, my modest earthly possessions crammed inside. Among this ramshackle collection of stuff stood my treasured music collection, which ended up dominating the living room, packed into a line of shiny new Ikea units. “I’m proud of you,” he told me as we strolled down Bondgenotenlaan. It was an unexpected announcement and for a minute I wasn’t sure what it was I’d done to make him proud. Maybe it was because I’d stayed in Leuven after the Lucie debacle; that I’d stuck it out and forced my way through the shit times. Whatever the reason, it was a nice moment that has stayed with me over the years.
“Hey Leighton, De Libertad tonight?” asked Vicky one morning. It was a Saturday and she’d caught me down in the communal hallway, on my way to grab coffee and bagels from Nosh. Vicky lived downstairs with her boyfriend Steven and we’d quickly become friends. Like me, they were crazy about music and film, so we wasted no time in convening for movie nights, while lazy Sunday afternoons on the balcony were perfect for checking out new albums by The White Stripes and The Kings of Leon.
Their friendship soon became integral to my Leuven experience. I’d occasionally meet Vicky for lunch at a nearby cafe, while Steven and I built up a quiet bond through weekly squash sessions and my discovery of Belgian indie bands. Encouraged by my Flemish neighbors, I became hooked on Deus, a kind of Belgian Radiohead. Not to mention the brilliant Admiral Freebee, a Neil-Young inspired rocker bursting at the seams with unexpected quirks and tight melodies. Thankfully, I was able to feed my new addiction at a handful of Leuven record shops, namely Bilbo on Ladeuzeplein and the rickety, rummage-friendly shelves of Sax on Parijstraat. I could lose myself for hours in those places and they played a pivotal role in my musical education.
De Libertad meanwhile was an amazing little Muntstraat bar just a few minutes walk from my apartment. A magnet for music lovers, they played everything from Bowie, The Beatles and Led Zeppelin, to more underground artists like Pavement, Cornelius and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. Hip, smoky, friendly and refreshingly unpretentious, it instantaneously achieved local dive status and we enjoyed a myriad of nights within its magical walls. They’d put on live music from time to time and host the odd quiz night, though we were equally happy making our own entertainment with passionate debates on the best Coen Brothers film, or what became of the guy who played Chunk in The Goonies. “Wasn’t he a Cohen too?”
That first Muntstraat year flew by, punctuated as it was by wave after wave of visitors. Never before in my years living abroad had so many people come to stay, no doubt buoyed by the fact that I was finally settled and within reach. In March 2006 my sister came over from Scotland with her boyfriend Thomas. It had been years since we’d hung out, so I pulled out all the stops with a home-cooked curry, drinks at De Libertad and boxes of fresh deli bites from Saha, the Moroccan arts & crafts studio/gourmet food shop on Pensstraat.
Soon after, my dear friends Pierre and Mireille paid a visit from Ghent. Reminiscing about old summer camp days in England, we spent an evening together at the wonderful Pata Negra bar, knocking back cocktails and playing Jenga. In June my mates Ad and the Steves popped over from London. Camping out together at Time Out on the Square Sports bar, we spent our days playing pool and watching The World Cup, all the while doing our best to get excited about England’s competent but underwhelming performances.
When my mum and brother flew over for my 28th birthday weekend a few weeks later, we marked the occasion by eating ourselves into an ice-cream coma at Hotel Professor. We weren’t the only ones celebrating, the city’s Italian contingent rejoicing noisily throughout the evening as the Azzurri lifted The World Cup, thanks in large part to Zinedine Zidane’s zany head-butt.
When there weren’t guests around it seemed like Leuven always had some kind of event on to compensate. There was the Jazz Festival in March and the M-idzomer Arts performances in July, with its comedy skits, dance acts and colourful, energetic street concerts. In August the city’s yearly music festival Marktrock consumed the old square, while in December the charming little Christmas market did a grand job of getting me into the Yuletide spirit.
Before I knew what had happened it was 2006 and I woke up one January morning feeling particularly blessed with how everything had panned out. Sure, I wasn’t jumping on camels anymore or backpacking through rural Hungary; but in its own quiet way life in Leuven felt just as thrilling. And for perhaps the first time since landing on Belgian soil, the place was really starting to feel like home.