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.
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:
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.