When I landed in Brussels for the first time in 11 years I didn’t recognize anything. I had expected to feel home, the way I had when I landed here during the months of commuting between London and Belgium before making the move west. Since then I have been back and forth with cars full of family, dog, and lots of stuff (the stuff mostly of the edible and drinkable kind, strictly going west) but never by plane. This being the first business trip in all those years time was finally more valuable than space and so I found myself in a bright, busy could-be-anywhere airport.
That all changed at night. Many things do. I made it into Leuven town centre on a nostalgia trip, and thoroughly enjoyed it. The hurdles on my path were so many I had begun to believe the whole idea was jinxed. The first was: I was seriously sleep deprived and a part of me was screaming to just go to bed in that lovely loft room. Hunger however was worse so I had to have dinner. Easy: eat at the hotel, then go to bed before anyone notices. Problem number two: the hotel restaurant was closed, and the hotel was just out of town. Problem number three: I had let my colleagues, who had the good sense to go home at a reasonable time, lock my coat in the office and so had no coat to brave the frost that night. Desperation set in.
I did the lost girl thing to the hotel receptionist, which is not my usual style but desperation is the mother of resourcefulness. And hark: he could lend me a nice warm coat, only slightly oversized, a bike, and a set of bike lights; he showed me how to work the bike lock and gave me directions. The answer to all my problems! I’d forgotten how well suited a bike is to seeing a town. Just the right speed and hop on and off as you like. London is finally cottoning on, but in Belgium we’ve known this for yonks.
Leuven town centre still looks very much as I remembered it. The historic buildings of course ensure the cityscape does not change. But I even found many cafes and restaurants we used to frequent as students way back then: one where they had good spaghetti, one where we’d occasionally splash out on a steak, and many cafes that bring back memories of evenings out with fellow students. The drowning Margriet statue is still there, as is the experimental theatre cafe that still seems to attract the more obscure “Culture” fanatics. They had huge screens in there now that were displaying some experimental video work.
I ended my pilgrimage in a restaurant with its own house brewery, enjoying a delicious pheasant with chicory and wine poached pear accompanied by the house Troubadour blond beer. Which I had never heard of but enjoyed greatly. Not a bad workday night.