Back to a long time ago

I had been debating with myself whether to revisit my childhood town and the home where I grew up over the last couple of weeks. I left for Belgium still very much undecided. A few days into the trip the perfect day presented itself when every other family member had something planned, leaving husband and me to make our own plans. My hand was forced, I had to indulge husband and plug his gap in the history of me. I kept telling him I had not been hiding anything, that there just was not very much to it. I had wanted to add “my life only started with you darling” but he would have heard the grin. Truth be told, I was dreading the visit (I almost wrote “confrontation”) all the way there. Didn’t know where to park when we got there. Twenty years is an awfully long time for a city. It had changed so much I was surprised to find several shops I remembered from my childhood still exist. Mostly though I was left trying to work out what was there before. I would look at a building and instantly think “ha, there’s a design shop here now”, for example, but not be able to recall what was there before. I just know it wasn’t that.

Oudenaarde City Hall

Oudenaarde City Hall

Husband was duly impressed with the city hall – really I should stop calling it a town 🙂 -, which is the little sibling of those in Brussels and Leuven, and the two beautiful churches. I showed him the school I went to, which has now entered the modern era and merged with the boys’ school next door and removed the fences that were designed to keep us girls safe from them, at least while the nuns were responsible for us. Whilst I do agree with all that I can’t help thinking that kids now miss out on the thrill of looking forward to meeting up with their boy / girlfriend in the little alleyway across from the school gate. Preferably while nun on duty was looking.

With all the change I felt detached from my memories. It didn’t quite feel like the place I grew up anymore, even if I rationally know it is.

So far so easy. The tourist treatment. Now I had to drive to the village and the home where I grew up. Still hating the thought of it as I was edging closer, fearing that regret for what was loved and lost would take over. And then there it was: the castle and the pond where we went skating; then the garden appeared in view, and finally, a glimpse of the house itself. I stopped the car in front of the drive and peered in. You couldn’t see much, just as I remembered it. The house is nestled behind tall hedges, trees and bushes, which all still looked familiar. Waves of emotions crashed over me, all different hues. I drove around the back, where I could only glimpse into the garden but not make out the house. I sat there for a while until the seas inside me calmed down. Then I told my husband I was glad we had visited. The dread I had felt before, linked to the bad memories of the final year or so of us living there, was being pushed down below overlays of the many more memories of all the wonderful years there. Growing up there was a privilege: we enjoyed a space and freedom my children couldn’t dream of. We waged wars with the other children throughout the village, built camps and rope bridges in the garden, built dams in the brook down the road. I wished I had brought my walking boots so I could trace back some of my favourite walks. It is beautiful out there. Too muddy without boots right now, but it gives me a reason to go back. I might even take the children to see where their roots lie. Because now I feel freed to do so and enjoy it.

Somewhat paradoxically, my restored connection with my childhood home has made me even more comfortable being at home where I am now. I feel as if I have been given a bright new room to keep my childhood memories in, one I can visit and feel good about, but only a room in my existence alongside so many others.

I didn’t have the presence of mind to take pictures but I found one of the castle pond, where we used to skate:

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