‘Voice’ launch

August 2, 2021 at 8:29 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , )

In the heart of Brussels in the Canal of Wolves

Wolvengracht

Rue du Fossé aux Loups

The box landed on my doorstep in time for Imbolc, the Witchcraft festival marking the end of winter and the approach of spring. I knew what it was straight away. I set the box on my altar, not knowing what to do with it, and the flurry of emotion that had landed with it.

It didn’t last long.

There are few finer experiences than opening a box of your own books for the first time.

‘Writer Rijn Collins’ VOICE is a moving, honest and, at times, darkly humorous three-part memoir. She knocks on the doors to belonging, identity and love through the power of language and her innate desire to understand both herself and others. Drawing on Rijn’s linguistic background in Flemish, Irish and Icelandic, VOICE is both a curious tour of foreign places and words as well as a triumphant journey to the heart and light.’

‘Voice’ (Somekind Press)

Travel seems long ago and far away thanks to Covid, which is why I absolutely loved writing about my time with these lands and their languages. But what I loved most – what I’ll always love – is writing about Brussels.

I lived there for a year in my teens, and for nine months in my thirties. Deciding what to include in the Flemish chapter of my memoir was so much more challenging than the Irish and Icelandic sections, though I love both those languages too. Memories of Brussels keep floating up, and I hope they never stop.

The Witchcraft store where I’d buy amber and myrrh incense wrapped in wax paper, and tiny bells to plait into my long black hair.

The bar on Schildknaapsstraat, Street of the Squires, where at seventeen I met a Swedish backpacker whose recent inheritance was allowing him to travel far and wide across Europe. When he invited me to join him, fully funded, it was a temptation beyond belief. When I eventually and regretfully declined, he tied a bracelet around my wrist to remember him by. Decades later, I still know which box in the garage it’s in, nestled next to a deer skull and antlers, snake skins and velvet dresses.

The library where I found a huge volume of Sylvia Plath’s journals, and painstakingly handwrote whole chapters into a teal notebook, week after week.

The hairdresser where a devastating breakup led me to cut off my waist-length hair, like a myriad of heartbroken women before me. When the owner asked if I’d like to keep the hair, I told him about the relationship. He murmured sympathy and asked ‘Would you like me to stomp on it instead?’ Mais oui, monsieur, oui. He gathered all his staff and to my delight, led them in a wild dance across the studio, grinding my hair into the floorboards.

On my doorstep in Street of the Candlesticks, Brussels

I could go on (and I probably will, somewhere).

Or you could come along to my launch this Sunday in Melbourne and pick up a copy yourself.

When: Sunday 8th August, 3pm-6pm

Where: Sloth bar, 202 Barkly Street, Footscray

If you have an interest in Icelandic spells or feminist punk, linguistics or Goth girls, or just supporting local authors…would love to see you there.

Permalink Leave a Comment

VOICE

May 25, 2021 at 8:20 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , )

Something wonderful has happened.

My name is on a book cover.

My debut collection of short memoir, VOICE, is now available for pre-order. Somekind Press is a crowdfunded publishing house, and their ROAR series is ‘dedicated to some of Australia’s newest and most exciting writing talent.’ Such amazing company to be in!

From Somekind’s website:

An adventure, a home, a new skin to slide into and claim as my own…” In writer Rijn Collins’ VOICE, a moving, honest and, at times, darkly humorous three-part memoir, we meet a young Rijn on a personal journey of discovery; a poignant search to find and accept herself. Rijn’s hunt takes her to faraway lands – from Melbourne to Belgium and Iceland (and back again), from drinking cherry beers on medieval cobblestone streets to gazing at the Northern Lights knee-deep in snow in places where “roads are rerouted to avoid underground elf homes.” Punk to paganism, snow and solitude to cheery Irish pubs, Rijn knocks on the doors to belonging, identity and love through the power of language and words and her innate desire to understand both herself and others. Drawing on Rijn’s linguistic background in Flemish, Irish and Icelandic, VOICE is both a curious tour of foreign places and words as well as a triumphant journey to the heart and light.

If you’ve been following my blog, you know I love the niche, and there is plenty of that here. Tiny bird bones and feminist punk, pagan altars and snakes curled asleep in my bra, snowy sagas and Goth cafes, the languages I adore and a winter solstice wedding, a taxidermy snow goose and a potential Riverdance audition.

If that sounds up your alley – you beautiful weirdo – please click through on the photos and place your pre-order. You have ten days to do so to help it reach publication, so I would love your support, as well as the opportunity to support a fabulous new micro-publisher on the Australian, Japanese and American literary scene. Here we go ❤️

Permalink Leave a Comment

Maelstrom

December 31, 2020 at 5:03 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , )

Her name meant ‘nocturnal journey.’ I chose her for that reason from the clinic’s website. For my first appointment, I was concerned about running late so pulled on the first thing my fingers found. I got to the front gate. A tight and lime green ‘Getting Lucky in Kentucky’ t-shirt might not be the best first impression. I changed it. These things count, you know.

Those places are full of secret codes of behaviour, believe me. They won’t tell you what they are, but they’ll sure as hell notice when you break them.’

She had pale, fine hair and smiled often. I sat cross-legged on her couch and didn’t smile at all. My hand rested on my breastbone as though trying to push down the pressure that had been building in my ribcage.

In our third session, she leaned forward.

‘Did you know – ‘ I leaned forward too – ‘that uncertainty doesn’t seem to sit well with you?’

I did know. I sighed as I walked out of there. Who did it sit well with? I didn’t make another appointment.

A month later, Covid hit.

If there were ever a year to explore uncertainty, it’s 2020.

Like most of us, I’ve been limping towards December 31st. It’s been so grim for so long, and I am bone fucking tired. It was a year that started well, too, with publication contracts for both myself and my husband for our debut novels. But then 2020 tilted, everything skewed, and the unexpected came shooting straight at us.

I’m deeply grateful to have my health, my home and my husband. At this age, I’m surprised when I can still surprise myself, but I learned some things in 2020, and I’m grateful for them too. This little technophobe had a crash course in zoom and transferred 100% of her teaching online, to the amazement of everyone. I had it written into my wedding vows that I would not ask for husband for tech help, and lord, did I break that this year (thanks, baby). A global pandemic is a brutal background for the first year of marriage, but we turned to each other instead of against, and are closer than ever.

My husband’s custom-made maelstrom wedding ring

In a year that seemed never-ending, the importance of the Solstices and Equinoxes in marking time, and therefore opportunities for regeneration and renewal, were inestimable. My altar is the first place I go every morning, and the last at night. Through Nina Hagen I also found Kirtan, traditional Hindu devotional songs, which I’ve been singing all through lockdown (sorry, baby).

Salt and snakeskin blessing
Equinox altar

A huge hit of unexpected joy came in the form of another publication contract, though I’m not giving details until it’s all settled and signed. A teaser is that it allows me to write about my favourite place in the world, Brussels, as well as the setting of my novel, Iceland,, and my love of languages that has led me through a degree in Linguistics and fourteen years of language teaching. So excited to get to work!

Place du Petit Sablon, Brussels
Icelandic fortune telling cards from a Reykjavik flea market

One deeply painful lesson was that when my beloved Marley took unexpectedly sick and died in my hands five weeks ago, my own heart was able to still keep beating, though it broke into so many pieces. A life lived without a creature is not a life for me. Today we welcomed a three-legged rescue cat called Martha into our family, and her purring behind me right now is pure joy, though we all need time to adjust.

My magnificent Marlow

Lastly, trapped in Melbourne’s industrial west for eight months of lockdown, among petrochemical vats and noxious factories, I learned that I crave the forest. Green, green, so much hunger for green. I’ve been a city girl my whole life, but that may just be coming to a close. If 2020 has taught me anything, it’s that the unexpected is not necessarily the enemy.

The Dandenong Ranges, my childhood home

And I’ve read. Damn, have I read. Thanks to everyone whose books, stories, articles and recommendations have been shared and supported by the astounding literary community, and so made their way into my life. If you have any recommendations (including your own books) please let me know.

Here’s to 2021….time to close our eyes, and leap.

Permalink Leave a Comment

Once in a blue Beltaine moon

October 31, 2020 at 9:25 pm (Uncategorized)

The city looked weird. I felt deeply uncomfortable. There was only one other person in my train carriage, but their mask was slung low, under their nose. I moved seats. When I got off at Flinders Street Station in central Melbourne, there were few passengers. Ambling across the concourse instead were groups of police, navy blue uniforms stark against the pale Edwardian tiles. They seemed chatty, buoyant. I walked, head down. Then a pigeon flew out from behind a pillar, and I flinched.

It takes time to adjust to freedom, and I was not quite there.

Melbourne is opening again. We had 71 days of Stage Three restrictions, followed by 111 days of Stage Four; one of the longest and harshest lockdowns in Covid so far. It’s been…well, quite something. And doubtless something we’ll be processing for a long time to come.

My last post talks about the challenges; this one will catalogue the crutches that helped me through it (if we’re there, in fact – I’m taking nothing for granted anymore). Tonight, on Beltaine in the Southern Hemisphere, we’re welcoming the approaching summer, the turn of the seasons, the full blue moon. We’re welcoming the light back. So here’s where mine gets in.

Reading art books on Dürer, Jan van Eyck and Goya. Trading ideas with my publisher about book covers for my debut novel next year. Mentioning on Instagram that I was teaching myself bass tabs to my beloved Babes In Toyland, and having the bass player herself chime in with advice…total fan girl swoon. Then learning how to play the songs she suggested. Exploring the literature of Iceland, and translating idioms with an Icelandic friend for my novel. Being delighted and surprised by the joy of boxing, and the release of cutting all my nails off to fit in the gloves. Taking part in an online book club to discuss the incredible Helen Garner, and having the author herself join us for two hours of intoxicating chat. Nina Hagen devotional chants in my studio.  And thrillingly, being approached about writing a book of narrative non-fiction once my novel edits are finished, and the delicious teasing out of stories that encourages.

My fat black cat has a hole in the laundry door she barrels through to get into our jungle courtyard. It used to have a flap, but her sheer girth smashed the fibreglass into tiny pieces long ago. She noses around the garden then howls at the kitchen door for us to let her back in. She seems to forget she could simply come back in the same way she left. The exit and entry are muddled; she doesn’t quite know what to do with her freedom. I feel much the same way right now. It could trigger tender memories of the years in my youth I spent agoraphobic, if I let it. But then I can also recall the feeling of standing at my front door, blinking at the sunshine, gaining courage.

It’s Beltaine, after all, and I know the light is coming.

Permalink 1 Comment

Plums, punk, pinot

April 30, 2020 at 8:11 pm (Uncategorized, writing) (, , )

I knew as soon as I saw the photos. Yes, this was definitely the one. The orange and brown swirls, the turntable with vintage vinyl, the five cats who liked to visit. This caravan was the perfect place to meet my publisher’s deadline for rewrites on my novel.

95233198_1169000620114767_6579550728199602176_n

 

95459227_2603661326547683_4028453056180912128_n

I took the train two and a half hours north of Melbourne. The freedom and exhilaration of hitting the road always tastes so sweet. It would be my last taste for some time. I’m glad I didn’t know it as I walked through Bendigo, picking up a few days’ food and a bottle of spiced rum. The caravan was only twenty minutes’ walk from the centre of town. I remember the sun was hot, my bags heavy, my heart full. I would have a few days to write before my husband came up to join me: the perfect getaway.

The 70’s caravan was every bit as funky and fabulous as the photos. I popped the kettle on. I went through the records next to the turntable and selected Ike and Tina Turner. A snub-faced cat called Pearl sat on my lap as I pushed a cactus aside and set up my laptop on the table. ‘Nutbush City Limits’ filled the caravan.

Another self-imposed writing retreat, another step back into the Iceland of my novel. So just another week in my writing world, then.

95344175_2574850666115721_2627004145164353536_n

 

95262798_600480794146038_4535346934700834816_n

It’s six weeks later and I can’t stop thinking of that caravan. I had no idea back then what was about to hit. Back in March I knew there was a virus, but no-one really could have predicted….well, this. This world we’re now in. I am extremely fortunate to be living in a house with a small garden, and to be sharing it with my husband and stepson. I’m not lacking touch, or company, or even an income, at least at this point. There were a few frantic weeks of the college I work at moving everything online, and believe me, this little technophobe had more than a few issues. But I’m lucky, and I know it. I just need to remember how to breathe when the anxiety swirls.

I skipped last month’s blog post. Didn’t even try to write one. It seemed so pointless in the face of everything. But I’m drinking down every story I can get on how people are handling this, and drawing strength from them. One friend is a nurse in the red dirt of far northern Australia; another a punk-loving mum from Rotterdam in the Netherlands. I read everything they write. We do the grocery shopping for our immune-compromised neighbour, and trade stories over the fence with soul music and mint juleps. Everyone is coping differently, but every story is worth telling.

In writing this I’m trying to focus on the comfort so as not to get overwhelmed by the chaos. My altar and bell jars of snake skins. Punk music and pinot noir. Handwritten letters. Fresh plums. Episodes of ‘International House Hunters.’ Playing bass. Rilke poetry. Liquorice tea. My chonky cat. Icelandic band Kaelan Mikla. Halloween tonight in the southern hemisphere. Being able to understand my friends’ messages in Dutch and German. My favourite Kali chant. Sunshine in my writing studio. Supportive emails from my agent and publisher. Meeting their deadline for my novel. And imagining my next writing retreat, when we’re able to move again, when we’re able to breathe.

95227954_230974455003900_9129758122217308160_n

I keep thinking about that caravan. The first thing I’m going to do when things stabilise, after rushing across Melbourne to sweep my beloved best friend into a massive bear hug, is to book this caravan again. I don’t even know what ‘stabilise’ means right now, so don’t ask me to clarify. But I do know I’m jumping on that V-Line train, and I’m going to open that retro door. I’m going to beckon in a cat or three, and open my notebook. And with Donna Summer crooning, I’m going to pour myself a rum, and start writing.

Permalink Leave a Comment

Scalpel and sinew under the northern lights

February 29, 2020 at 5:43 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , , )

My head is very much down, hands on keyboard, blues on the stereo. This month has seen meetings with my lovely publisher and agent, work on my manuscript, collating of ideas for the book cover, publicity photos, a writing retreat, and so much joy (which never really comes without stress, does it?). I took time out to read a Lit Hub article detailing a set of questions the author always asks writers with a new book out. The questions were intriguing, the answers illuminating. Of course I picked up a pen, and answered some myself.

Without summarizing it in any way, what would you say your book is about?
Identity through isolation. Bird bones and snow. Regeneration through fragility. Icelandic sagas and Australian rainforest. Home and heart. Scalpel and sinew under the northern lights.

Far northen Iceland

Bird bones: anatomy of a thrush

Without explaining why and without naming other authors or books, can you discuss the various influences on your book?
Big Mama Thornton’s voice. Feminist punk lyrics. My familiars of cat and snake. A one-month writing residency in far northern Iceland. My taxidermy teacher. Victorian memento mori. An Icelandic-English dictionary. Trumpet lilies in my garden. Snake skins. My agent’s wisdom. My husband’s chest. My history of agoraphobia. The photography of Petrina Hicks. My constant search for solitude in snow. Red birds.

My trumpet lily tattoo

Petrina Hicks

Taxidermy workshop

Without using complete sentences, can you describe what was going on in your life as you wrote this book?
Studied Icelandic and taxidermy techniques. Fell in love. Pagan handfasting on the Winter Solstice. Honeymoon in Brussels with Bosch and Bruegel paintings. Leaned into step-motherhood. Got an agent and a bass guitar. Pulled my hair out with rewrites. Learned I was part-Norwegian. Husband signed a book deal. Loved my coven of scribe sisters.

Bronco bass and Marlow muse

Handfasting

If you could choose a career besides writing (irrespective of schooling requirements and/or talent) what would it be?
Translator of Germanic languages. In my degree I did a double major in Linguistics and Germanic Languages, which is where I first studied and fell in love with Icelandic. It’s a notoriously difficult language and my love for it far exceeds my skill. Setting my novel in Reykjavik with a protagonist who takes Icelandic classes meant being able to shine a light not just on the beauty of the language, but my reverence for it. I’ve lived in Brussels several times and travel as often as possible to Berlin: I would absolutely adore dipping into English, Dutch and German as a translator. In a perfect world, Icelandic would follow (and then Russian, and Finnish, and Gaelic, and…and…).

Windowsill eavesdropping, Brussels

Have I procrastinated enough?

Head down, stereo on, and back to the keyboard.

Permalink 1 Comment

Up on the eighteenth floor

January 31, 2020 at 9:54 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , )

I saw the missed call. I was at work and couldn’t call back straight away. My agent had told me to be patient, to be calm. I was neither of those things. When I could call back, I had one of the most astonishing conversations of my life. How I went back into class and taught, I don’t know. I thought I was holding it together but one of my students asked whether I was feeling all right. ‘Absolutely,’ I told them, beaming. And it was more than true.

After work, I bought a bottle of champagne and went to meet my husband. It was his birthday the next day. As a treat I’d booked us a hotel room on the 18th floor, overlooking Victoria Market on the edge of Melbourne’s CBD. The day was sweltering, over 40 degrees, and the eerie yellow sky was thick with dust. People I passed on the city streets looked wired and worried. I put my head down and pressed the elevator buzzer.

He was tired and tender after his own full day. I listened to him talk and poured him champagne. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to share my news; I just needed to hold it in my hands for a while, quietly, on my own. And then I did tell him. Today I was offered a publication contract for my novel, baby. I said the words I’d waited my whole writing life for. I said the words aloud, like a spell, and held my glass up. His face, and then his clink, and then the joy. The offer for his own novel had come only two months before, an email I’d met with hollers and he’d met with stunned silence. Different people, different novels, but the same path, and the same passion.

We headed into Victoria Market and ate a bizarre yet delicious Korean Mexican meal. I had kim chi quesadillas with grape soju that tasted like bubble gum. Afterwards we went to The Drunken Poet and sat under Guinness signs and framed portraits of Irish writers. I had so much to process I could barely hear the band. We went back into the heat and the wind. I kept trying to tame my wild fringe and he kept grinning at how badly I failed. We went up to our room, laughing.

On the balcony of the 18th floor the wind roared. My long hair whipped around me; my glasses almost flew off. In bed, it shook the windows. The din was so ferocious it sounded like a vacuum cleaner slamming down the hallway, but when I looked, there was no-one there. We did not sleep well. Chris kicked me in his sleep, fighting dream crocodiles. I woke at 5:30am and watched the sky turn cold blue, wishing like hell for rain.

I didn’t fall back asleep. Instead, I replayed the phone conversation, and tried to plan for what might come next. I thought of my manuscript, of my protagonist, and the white and wild Iceland that spellbinds us both. I watched dawn wake my city. And then I got up, and reached for my notebook.

I am over the moon to announce that I’ve just signed with Scribner at Simon and Schuster to publish my debut novel. I’m utterly delighted to be working with the amazing people there, and so grateful to everyone who’s had faith in me and my writing ❤ Exciting times ahead!

Footscray
(photo by Shannon McDonald)

Permalink 2 Comments

Nostalgia night

December 30, 2019 at 3:54 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , )

It’s old school all the way for me. I love placing a blues record on the turntable. I rely on hand-drawn maps to navigate new places. I write long letters to beloved pen pals in faraway countries. I hand write bass tabs to punk songs to pick out when nobody else is home to hear me play.

Bronco bass and Marlow muse

And I print out photos. I label them and place them in albums. I slide them into frames, tuck them into notebooks, and paste them into diaries. Oh yeah, I forgot to tell you: I write diaries too, but I doubt that surprises you.

I’m sitting on the floor of my writing studio, photos of this past year spread out on the red shag rug around me. These are some highlights of my 2019.

I celebrated typing THE END of my novel manuscript by welcoming a small snake into our household of bird bones and deer skulls. She was a hatchling, tiny enough to wrap around my fingers and snuggle inside my bra while I wrote. We were so proud when she shed her first tiny skin. The Medusa tattoo on my left arm never felt so fitting.

Beautiful little Elva

I finished the first full draft of my manuscript at the urging of a literary agent, who then met me for coffee a few days later. I had my outfit all laid out; my hands only shook a little. When I smashed my foot into the couch on the way out, breaking my little toe, I didn’t even think about cancelling. I just limped all the way there, hanging onto lamp posts for support. Her feedback was extraordinary, her interest buoying. Signing with her agency is still one of the most exciting moments of the year, painkillers notwithstanding.

Signing with Melanie Ostell Literary

Waking up on the Winter Solstice and smiling at my Wolf on the pillow next to me, knowing that in a matter of hours we’d be married in a pagan hand-fasting ceremony, was a golden moment not just of 2019, but of my life.

Hand-fasting ribbon, broomstick and black cat.

My Wolf and cub

The first stop of our honeymoon was Brussels, my old home. So many memories, so many diary entries written with a cherry beer in my hand and the cobblestones below my window! Standing in the Great Place, my absolute favourite place in the world, with my husband, was something I’d never even thought to imagine. When we were joined by my beloved pen pal of twenty years, whom I first met in an online feminist punk collective in the early days of the internet, and her man, the joy was intense. Cue Jacques Brel singalongs, walks in the rain, more cherry beer, and the tightest of hugs.

Serenity

Contentment and cobblestones

A month later, back home in Melbourne, I was putting a record on the turntable in my studio when my man called my name. He was staring at his phone. The email was the one all writers wait for: we love your novel, and we want to publish it. We’re sending the contract tonight. I cried and wanted to shout it from the rooftops: he needed to sit in silence and process it. The following photo is at the train station on our way home from dinner and drinks to celebrate. I still love the look on his face.

Stay tuned for details of his upcoming novel!

Though my writing focus this year has been on finishing, honing and submitting my own novel, there have still been road trips to perform at literary festivals, as well as short story publications, residency applications and even planning books number two and three. My Icelandic spell book is still open on my desk; the snow is still all over my writing desk. And I will have some news to share very, very soon.

Iceland…setting of my first writing residency, and my novel.

In the meantime, I wish you a new year full of words and their wonder, in whatever form you prefer. See you in 2020.

Photo by Shannon McDonald

Permalink Leave a Comment

Die Wende

November 30, 2019 at 10:21 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , )

We all jumped when we heard it. My teacher opened the classroom door and peered out.

Thirty years ago this month, I can still remember every moment.

We heard the loud and joyous exclamation repeated in muffled Flemish from other classrooms. When my teacher rushed out the door, the students in my class began to follow him. I didn’t join them, for one good reason.

I hadn’t understood the sentence.

As celebrations erupted around the school, I tried to work it out. I was four months into a year-long exchange program in Brussels, a city I’d instantly fallen in love with. The languages, however, I was struggling with. Belgium has three: French, Flemish and German, and for that extra challenge they sometimes like to mix them all up in the colourful but impenetrable Bruxellois dialect.

The walk home was equally puzzling. Drivers honked; people hung out of car windows waving and bellowing. The elderly couple who ran the fruit stall slow-danced in the street. It was only when I heard German being sung that the shouted sentence in my high school hallway finally made sense.

My god, had the Berlin Wall come down?

Line of the Berlin Wall

I ran the last few steps. My host parents were standing in their butcher shop with white aprons tied tight, holding a bottle of champagne high enough to touch the smoked hams hanging from the ceiling. Everyone burst into cheers when they saw me. A torrent of Flemish and French surged around my host parents and their customers. The joy was undeniable, but I still needed confirmation, and I needed it in English. I headed upstairs to the lounge room, and the BBC.

I knew next to nothing about politics. Until that point my only political participation had been singing along to punk songs excoriating Margaret Thatcher. But that last year of the 1980’s was an incredible time to land in Europe, with the mass demonstrations and revolutionary fervour sweeping across the continent. Watching footage of protests in Poland, Hungary, Romania and Czechoslovakia was utterly invigorating. I was about to turn eighteen, and more than ready to see the world as an adult.

The fall of the Berlin Wall brought that home. We’d heard reports of the demonstrations gathering force, but were not quite able to tell the rumours from reality. Watching footage of the West Berliners line the roads with flower and cheers, welcoming the incredulous East Berliners as they streamed across the united city, was a sight I’ll never forget.

I couldn’t shake the spell of that city. Not long after the wall opened, I went to a travel agent. He took one look at the age on my passport and shook his head. It was impossible to find anyone who’d book a seventeen year old on a 750km bus trip from Brussels to Berlin that soon after November 9. What if the wall went back up, and I was trapped there? For some, euphoria was still tempered by suspicion: the shadow of the DDR loomed large.

I settled for the Rhine Valley instead. I spent my eighteenth birthday in Cologne, sneaking into punk clubs and learning German slang beside the world’s biggest Gothic cathedral. I loved my taste of Germany, but the whole time my gaze was on the east, and the promise of Berlin.

That night in November 1989 when I sat cross-legged on my host parents’ floor, watching the news unfold, had sunk hooks deep within me.

They led me to a degree in Germanic Languages and Linguistics, where I studied Nietzsche with scepticism, Goethe with fascination, and Nina Hagen with admiration. The compulsory subjects based on Die Wende, the change of political systems that brought with it the fall of the Berlin Wall, were pure joy to me.

When I finally made it to Berlin, it was even better than I’d anticipated. The city was a revelation.

Berlin street art

On my first trip I went to Bebelplatz, the square where the Nazi book burnings took place. When I was told that Berliners brought candles and pillows every May 10, the anniversary of the burnings, and that they curled up to read their favourite passages from the books that were banned, I knew I would be back.

On my third trip to Berlin I met up with my Dutch pen-pal, and went to a feminist punk festival held in a squat in Kreuzberg where the black coffee was so strong we felt ill and had to go back to the hostel to lie down.

On my fifth trip to Berlin, I rented a flat with an ex-lover who’d flown in from Switzerland. Under a thunderstorm and with sticky glasses of Grand Marnier, he told me I could never be a ‘real writer’ until I’d studied all the French greats of literature. The liqueur left a sweet taste in my mouth; his words did not.

On my seventh trip to Berlin, I landed on the 50th anniversary of the barbed wire being rolled out that would become the Berlin Wall. At midday there was a minute of silence. I watched from my balcony as pedestrians stopped on the footpath with heads bowed. I joined them, honouring not just the people killed trying to cross the wall, but all those whose lives were overshadowed by the enormity of its presence.

On my latest visit I brought my husband. He fell under the spell of the city immediately, connecting, just as I do, to the regeneration and resilience on every street corner.

The landlord of our apartment showed us around. He handed me the keys and a map of the city.

‘Thanks, but this is my eleventh visit. I know this city well.’

He raised his eyebrows.

‘If you love Berlin so much, why don’t you just live here then?’

I didn’t have an answer. It’s a question I ask myself often, every time I visit.

Permalink Leave a Comment

Words on a winter wing

July 20, 2019 at 10:05 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , , )

I asked Emily which was her favourite in the museum. She led me back to a Monet water lily, the first she’d ever seen, from 1919.

This is when I let her in on a secret: it can be yours. No different from falling in love with a song, one may fall in love with a work of art and claim it as one’s own.

‘Insomniac City: New York, Oliver and Me’ by Bill Hayes.

This gorgeous passage in Bill Hayes’ memoir brought my favourite artwork instantly to mind: the Betrothal of the Arnolfini by Jan van Eyck. At the age of seventeen I flew from Australia to Brussels for a year-long student exchange, and began a lifelong love affair with everything Flemish; the painting, the language, the architecture, and the divine black cherry beer. The first time I stood in front of van Eyck’s masterpiece in The National Gallery in London, my septum threaded with silver, my ripped stockings and army boots below a tattered punk t-shirt, I was instantly catapulted back into the Middle Ages. Its power was startling to me; still is, in fact.

betrothal

‘Betrothal of the Arnolfini’ by Jan van Eyck

Ownership of your artwork does not come free. One must spend time with it; visit at different times of the day or evening, and bring to it one’s full attention.

Van Eyck led me to delve into the witches of Goya, the intricate rabbit sketches of Dürer, the apocalyptic torment of Hieronymus Bosch, and the wry humour in Brueghel. As Hayes explains, it’s not just paintings that can provide these stories and their inspiration, but also books, songs, photographs, architecture…it can be anywhere, if you know where to look.

Bosch

Hieronymus Bosch

rabbit

Albrecht Dürer

Perhaps the best part about possessing art in this way is that what’s mine can be yours, and vice versa. In fact, I would not be surprised if half of New York City has also put dibs on the Monet that Emily chose. This made it no less hers.

There are streets in Brussels that belong to me. Rue Chair et Pain (Street of Flesh and Bread) is where I bought my coconut incense in 1989, my backpack full of French homework I didn’t quite understand. Rue des Renards (Street of the Foxes) spills its cobblestones into the site of an old leper colony, then a flea market, where I haggled for a tartan ‘mini jupe’ skirt in 2002 that made a workman lay his pipes on the road to slowly applaud me as I walked past. In 2006 I often walked through the Place de la Vieille Halle aux Blés for a gingerbread salad and sweet rosé at Café Coco opposite the Jacques Brel museum, writing postcards home to Melbourne. And in 2011 I stood outside a red-walled house on Kandelaarstraat (Street of the Candlesticks) and beamed up at the window of the bedroom I dream I’m still living in.

1381987_10202167706653490_773116106_n

Brussels windowsill (photo by Lisa Jewell)

Which brings me to music. I don’t know if you can share ownership of a song, but if so, I’m going to claim Big Mama Thornton. I love her blues so much I wanted it played at my wedding a few weeks ago. Chris listened to the sultry sighs and moans in the song I’d chosen. ‘Is that really a wedding song, babe?’he laughed. ‘Your dad is going to be there.’ I hadn’t thought of that.

In the end we went with David Bowie’s ‘Word on a Wing’ as I walked down the aisle in my red velvet dress. I barely heard the songs we chose, I was so spellbound by Chris’ beautiful face waiting for me at the altar. We wrapped a red silk ribbon around our wrists in a witchcraft hand-fasting, and these two writers promised each other a life of words and their wonder. Etta James’ ‘Loving You More Every Day’ played as we signed our marriage certificate; Nick Cave’s ‘Breathless’ saw us back down the aisle and out of the chapel.

Wedding-LowRes-20

Wedding photos by Rebecca Murray

Wedding-LowRes-7

Wedding-LowRes-56

Wedding-LowRes-53

Our honeymoon is in Brussels in four weeks. We’re going to visit Brueghel’s house and play Jacques Brel songs. I’ll take him to the flea market, sit him down with a black cherry beer, and see if I can still haggle in Flemish and French.

I cannot wait.

But don’t be hasty. You must be sure you are besotted. When it happens, you will know. 

I brought Emily in closer to her new acquaintance: ‘Emily, meet your Monet. Monet, Emily.’ 

Words did not fail her. ‘Hello, beautiful,’ she whispered.

The morning of our wedding was damn cold in the mountains outside Melbourne. The witch in me had chosen the Winter Solstice, after all. I woke early, before him. We’d stayed up with whiskey and tunes the night before; our rings were ready on the bedside table, my dress hanging on the bathroom rail. I watched him sleep. His head was turned away from me on the pillow, his arms wrapped around himself.

I leaned down and gently kissed his sleeping shoulder.

‘Hello, beautiful,’ I whispered.

Wedding-LowRes-112

Permalink 1 Comment

Next page »